How to Live History

I returned home last night from the party held in memory of Blake Hayes in Cherry Valley, New York. This post is a bit unusual in that it’s written for colleagues in the museum field, the line of work to which Blake dedicated his life—especially for members of the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM).

I met Blake at ALHFAM’s annual conference in 1986. We got married and were together 15 years before we moved on personally, but we remained engaged professionally and as friends. (Don’t worry, Blake and his wife Lorraine and me and my husband Tony all get along!)

His memorial party was an amazing event, with his friends from childhood, high school and college, his immediate family, adopted family, extended family (I think there were even in-laws of in-laws there!), “ex-family” (still regarded as family), professional colleagues, neighbors, local and regional friends, kids who grew up around him and brought their own kids, ALHFAM colleagues, Jell-O shots (which no one understood except the ALHFAMers), pets, meats, and music.

I heard Katie Boardman, one of Blake’s partners at the Cherry Valley Group, say that the comments and tributes to Blake “broke the ALHFAM-L,” a professional listserv normally used for questions and comments about museum matters. I think they also broke Facebook. After not checking my inbox for three days, I discovered literally hundreds of unread emails, nearly all Facebook notifications, ALHFAM-L summaries or personal messages about Blake.

This electronic outpouring, however, made me realize that as much of a tech enthusiast as he was, Blake didn’t need social media. He was social in the old-fashioned way—in person. He met, called, welcomed, taught, partied, shared time and stories, food and drink. Even when he was arguing his point of view passionately, it wasn’t personal. Even when he couldn’t type or walk any more, he talked. As his family reported, it was when he stopped talking that they knew the end was near.

Almost the only thing he didn’t share widely was news of his illness.

While we miss and remember and treasure all of our departed ALHFAM colleagues, I think it was Blake’s extremely social nature and long-term, deep commitment to ALHFAM that has made him so profoundly missed by all of us. Wherever Blake was, the party was. But when the party was over, valuable teaching and learning and doing occurred, informed and enhanced by personal relationships. Blake’s life is a reminder that opinionated doesn’t have to mean obnoxious.

As Dr. Takuji Doi, a long-departed ALHFAM colleague from Japan, once said after observing the flow of the annual meeting: “The difference between Japan and America: In Japan, make big decision, get drunk. In America, get drunk, make big decision!”

We need to continue to tell all of ALHFAM’s stories, the jokes, and the memories. And as much as possible we need to do it in person. There is no real substitute that can perpetuate our history. Maintaining the folklore of this organization and of your sites depends on you.

So go to your regional meetings, or those of other regions. Attend the annual conference whenever you can. Show up for your local history-related events. Gather with colleagues after hours for meals. Do it in memory of all our dearly departed, do it for yourself, and do it for the next generation.

Telling stories is, after all, the essence of history.

I recently came across something that, to me at least, seems to embody Blake’s professional and personal philosophy. It’s the last paragraph of Will and Ariel Durant’s book, The Lessons of History, published in 1968 (the year Blake graduated from high school).

To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious county of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing. The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it; let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.

May Blake live long in that spacious country of our minds, building and organizing, cooking and joking, helping and sharing. With much love always, ms

(Thanks to Eileen Hook for this great 2013 photo of Blake going Full Woodstock at ALHFAM!)


Big Sound

I was thrilled to have an opportunity to combine my personal and professional interests in music, the history of technology, and exhibit development in one great project: Les Paul’s Big Sound Experience. Its run will soon come to an end, but its a project I’ll never forget. Les was talented, humble, innovative in the truest sense of the word. He was an entertainer and a teacher who prioritized helping others the way he had been helped. While I wish I had known him, through this project I feel like I do.

I was honored to work with people at the Les Paul Foundation who knew Les and the designers and developers at MRA to help bring this project to life with research, scripting, and concept development.

1830s Doctor’s Office Creates Indelible Memories

Last year I was surprised when Tom Woods, director of Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site in Honolulu, asked me to create and execute a furnishings plan for an 1830s doctor’s office and storeroom. I knew nothing about the history of medicine or the physical manifestations of medical practice in the 1830s—let alone how a practice in Hawaii might have been different from a practice on the mainland. And the doctor in question was Dr. Gerrit Judd, a well-known figure in Hawaii’s history. But Tom assured me there was a lot of detailed primary source material, and I’d be working with people who did know a lot of that information. Besides, he said, we had plenty of colleagues in ALHFAM (the Association of Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums) who could assist with answering questions, pointing me in the right direction, and suggesting sources for reproductions.

And boy did they. Just on my end I worked with at least 14 craftspeople and historians, plus countless vendors of reproduction wares whose knowledge proved invaluable. That’s not even counting those in Hawaii, whose work was managed by the HMH staff. Unfortunately I only got to travel there once to do my portion of the installation, which was finished by the staff after I left. But I hope to return and see the finished product! They’ve produced this great video that shows a lot of furnishing details.

Since I had to leave before the installation was complete, it was exciting for me to see the custom items in context, such as handblown glass, pottery, tinware, a surgical instrument case, crates and barrels, handwritten labels, reproduction medical books—including one written and illustrated by Dr. Judd himself in the Hawaiian language, tracts and educational pamphlets, copper canisters, etc. In addition to the custom orders, I bought many historically appropriate items on eBay, such as apothecary scales, mortar and pestle, glass funnels, tools, etc.  Then there were newly manufactured historical items we purchased from vendors–rope, shoes, kitchenware, fabrics.

I was pretty sure the rich and evocative new installation would create an indelible memories for all involved. But literally indelible? For future interpretive and furnishings plans I now have a new item to add to the list of desired visitor outcomes: historically-themed tattoos!


Small Footprints, Big Ideas

I had hoped to get my letter published in the New York Times, but alas, the gatekeepers seem to have shut me out so now I’m free to publish it myself. On February 19, the New York Times “Obama and his Library: Go Small,” an editorial by Witold Rybczynski, a professor of urbanism at University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. After analyzing the creeping growth of presidential libraries and museums since FDR, he makes the case that President Obama should set himself apart by going small. It’s worth a read, but here’s the key part:

Rather than a memorial, Roosevelt conceived of his library as a Big House. This compelling image has not been improved upon. Although the original displays included such arcane objects as Roosevelt’s christening gown, there was no attempt to tell the entire story of his presidency, the New Deal or his role in the Second World War. Modern presidential libraries, on the other hand, want to describe everything. Yet there is something futile about trying to encapsulate a president’s life and accomplishments in a single building. Our knowledge about (and changing assessment of) any president are shaped by many sources: not only memoirs, biographies and declassified papers but also movies and even television docudramas. Exhibition designers are awfully good at interactive displays, but the world (and historians) will have the final say. There are reports that Mr. Obama used to be skeptical of having a library at all; a bold move would be to deposit his papers at the central National Archives and forgo a library. (The National Archives and Records Administration manages the 13 presidential libraries, which are built with private funds….) Failing that, he should set himself apart by thinking small or, at least, smaller. Mr. Obama has written a moving book about his early life; there’s no need to retell that story. His library should be more of an archive and less of a museum, more of a house, less of a shrine. In an austere age, a modest library could be the grandest statement of all.

And, while I could go on at great length about this subject, here’s my under-150-word-response as submitted to the Times:

RE: Obama and his Library: Go Small

Mr. Rybczynski is thinking architecture, not concept. Ronald Reagan was well-known prior to becoming president; a star in a big screen age. President Obama and his team mastered the small-screen age, where ideas easily reach beyond a physical presence. A small footprint doesn’t preclude a big idea. The president is too young for a memorial, and a monument isn’t his style—but personal artifacts are powerful, and essential to make real this president’s frequently-doubted history. Just because he wrote an autobiography doesn’t mean that’s the only way to tell that story. As an exhibit developer, I’d organize objects, images, video, and digital experiences in clusters around ideas—for example lessons Mr. Obama learned from life events and how he applied them. The goal? To show people—whether physically or virtually present—how to take action on issues they care about. The lesson? The improbable is not impossible. Go for it.

Since submitting my failed bid for minor fame, I’ve been riffing Roosevelt’s concept of a Big House. Here’s a solution that would get the hopeful host cities to stop fighting: create a new library building–whatever size it needs to be–wherever it makes most sense. Then open the Obamas’ Chicago house to the public as part museum, part meeting/teaching space. Do the same in Honolulu, New York, DC, or any other city that’s interested. Hell, it could be a 50-state strategy. Take the museum to the people, so they don’t have to be able to afford a trip to a distant state in order to participate. Each house could have a few artifacts, but mostly they’d be community activism incubators. The National Archives could administer the main library and the Chicago house as the two key sites. The others–probably more modest–could be administered locally.

Just thinkin’.  But Martin Nesbitt, if you’re out there, call me. I’m available!
Obama's house good

The Strange Case of Dr. Sweets and Mr. Edwards

The opening line of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between is brilliant: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Same goes for classic literature. Books like Moby Dick or Pride and Prejudice seem as remote as a foreign country to most people—a place they don’t care to visit and might not be welcomed if they did. Thug Notes is out to change that—or at least introduce the great themes of classic lit to an audience broader than college kids trying to check off their English lit requirement.

If Greg Edwards worked at a museum, he’d be called an interpreter. He uses a character, Sparky Sweets, PhD, to explain something essentially foreign—classic literature—to his audience in clever short videos. Think urban CliffNotes or streetwise SparkNotes with a lot of bad words (bleeped, but c’mon, we’ve all heard it before and we can read lips). It’s well-produced; there’s a writer, producers, and camerafolks behind the scenes. And it’s clever; the opening sequence is a riff on the PBS Masterpiece Theater series and…well, just watch a few.

It’s a fine line to walk between creating relevance and maintaining respect, and some people think Sparky Sweets, PhD, crosses the line. But the characters in these books cross lines all the time—that’s what makes the plots gripping and the themes eternal. Lady Macbeth’s sleepless mind unable to clean the blood from her guilty hands. The privileged boys in Lord of the Flies descending into vicious clan warfare. The upstanding Dr. Jekyll struggling with the despicable Mr. Hyde (I don’t think Dr. Sweets has reviewed this one yet, but it’d be a natural).

Whatever lines Greg/Sparky is/are crossing need to be crossed. Or at least poked with a sharp stick.

Every good interpreter knows how to read an audience. There’s an art to grabbing an audience—the timing, the hooks, the language, the length. Sparky Sweets talks to a YouTube audience—anyone with an internet connection and four-and-a-half minutes to spare.

People who object to the language don’t have to watch it. The internet is a big place. But before getting offended, they should remember that Shakespeare’s plays were written in the common everyday language of his times, and many of the plays include bawdy jokes, obscene gestures, and double entendres. The folks in the cheap seats loved it as much as those who rattled their jewelry.

I’ll admit I’m curious about the demographic breakdown of his followers and subscribers—how many are the kids he seems to be trying to reach and how many are people like me who just find Sparky Sweets’ take on the classics entertaining and insightful? In my museum work I try to help young folks understand old stuff. I think there are things to learn from anyone who has a fresh perspective, and that’s want is—fresh.

In the course of my work, I’ve seen several museums edit all the fun out of their texts/tours/interactives/labels out of a misguided notion that humor and informal language is unprofessional. Obviously an internet video is a completely different medium with different standards and different audiences than a museum. But I recently worked with a museum that objected to the word “stuff” because it’s unprofessional. Really.

I think the balance lies somewhere in between. I’m tying to decide whether to tell them to stuff it. If I’m truly inspired by Sparky Sweets, PhD., I will. And maybe I’ll add an expletive.

Selling the walls to fix the roof: Detroit’s bankruptcy and the DIA

Stories about selling works owned by the Detroit Institute of Arts in order to pay off the bankrupt city’s creditors have been so numerous over the last few months that there isn’t any point linking to one here. You’ve probably heard the tale of woe. Because some of the art was purchased with city funds, and the museum is controlled by the city, the artwork has been ruled fair game in Detroit’s bankruptcy. (So, it seems, are the quite modest pensions of city employees, many of whom receive no social security, and who did nothing to cause this bankruptcy. My comments are about the art, not about the wisdom or morality of various proposed solutions, but there is a lot of misinformation out there about just what is at stake for pensioners, so here’s a link on that topic.)

Museums generally adhere to a simple ethical standard: don’t sell the art to fix the roof. Instead of art, it could be classic cars, giraffes, daguerreotypes, or pot shards—but the principle is the same: if you sell the art to fix the roof, there is no need for a roof because there is no art to protect, no reason for people to visit, and no incentive for donors to give the museum anything else. Ever.

Bill Bynum & Co. at the DIA's Rivera Court, 2011. (c) Mike Halcala

Bill Bynum & Co. (my band) at the DIA’s Rivera Court, 2011.

Detroit’s creditors have indicated that they think the art is non-essential to city functions. (Interestingly, no one has mentioned the giraffes owned by the Detroit Zoo.) But at least one work defies that view—Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” frescoes in the DIA’S great court. The Rivera court is the scene of popular weekly music events, part of the DIA’s “Friday Night Live!” which includes art workshops, gallery drawing, and guided tours. My band played there to a packed house in 2011, and it was the most memorable show I’ve played in 35 years of gigs.

These huge and wonderfully detailed murals are conceptually and physically part of Detroit: inspired by the huge Ford Rouge industrial complex, commissioned by Edsel Ford, and painted on wet plaster so they’re literally part of the DIA’s walls.

Any collector who bought it would have to move into the building to enjoy it (yes, technically they could be separated from the structure but you’d have to re-create the entire room to complete the work as it was). Forcing a rich collector to go to Detroit would be a fitting turn of fate—but why would anyone want to gaze daily on this heroic depiction of Detroit’s auto industry if he didn’t love and appreciate Detroit? And if the buyer loved Detroit so much, why would she want to bleed one of its cultural arteries?

Art appreciation

Art appreciation between sets.

Many works of art at the DIA—including “Detroit Industry”—were given to the people of Detroit as a source of inspiration, solace, hope, and pride—not as a monetary asset to hide away in a vault to be raided on a rainy day. There are several efforts underway to find a way out of this fix and leave the DIA intact. I hope one of them will succeed.

I doubt that that anyone making decisions for Detroit at this dark moment is listening—but just in case: please don’t sell the people’s art to fix Detroit’s roof. A city with no cultural assets is a poor city indeed.

At least they can’t sell the music.

A fist-bump with Henry Ford

A fist-bump with Henry Ford. (All photos (c) Michael Hacala)

What would Steve Jobs do?

I read a piece in the San Jose Mercury News yesterday about the possibility of Steve Jobs’ childhood home becoming an historic site. It was posted in a LinkedIn group, “The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums,” asking members what they’d do with it.

While I’m not sure what I’d do with it were I the director, I love the idea of preserving it. Few middle class mid-century suburban homes have ever been preserved anywhere, and this one is a fascinating mix of ordinary domestic and revolutionary industrial (the first 50 Apple I computers were built there).

But would geeks (and I’m a little geeky) flock to mecca, or be happy with a YouTube tour shot on an iPhone? Do the docents have to be conversant in BASIC? Might Woz come back as a historic furnishings consultant? Would the historic site be able to use historic versions of the Apple logo without getting sued? And could its web sit be anything less than a stellar example of functionality and design?

I can already hear people saying “it’s too soon!” After all, Jobs died only a couple of years ago. But there is no time like the present.

A few months ago, I was driving to a midtown Detroit hospital and came upon a small, white, suburban style ranch house. In the middle of Detroit! Anywhere else I’d never have noticed it, but a block off Woodward Avenue, it kinda stood out. It seemed unimaginable that anyone would build a house like that there. Or at least no one ever had, which led my mind to many other questions about housing and culture and cities and suburbs and green and paved and sameness and difference and black and white.

Which, I soon discovered, is kind of the point. The house isn’t the start of some new urban renewal subdivision. It’s art. Or a mobile community center. Or both. Called “Mobile Homestead,” it’s the last work of art by Mike Kelley, who committed suicide recently at age 57. So yes, not only is there no time like the present; there is no time but the present.

Detroit already has its share of historic homes, but none of them mobile until now. In fact it’s made a cottage industry (pun intended) of Henry Ford family houses. That trend was started in 1929 by Henry Ford himself when he had his boyhood farmhouse moved a few miles to Greenfield Village, his new outdoor museum. At the time, 19th-century farmhouses were nothing special. Lots of people had grown up in them. But Ford knew exactly what he wanted, and had the place fixed up just the way he wanted people to think he remembered it. (Yes, you read that right.)

Which leads back to the original question, WWSJD? Would he want anybody with ten bucks to be able to see what posters he had on his bedroom wall and what brand of toothpaste he used?  I’m still not sure, but if I get to lead the brainstorming session to figure out what to do with that house, I’ll project two words on the wall to get us started: Think Different.