Driving America wins an award!

The Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) presents an annual award for excellence in museum exhibits. Driving America, the major automobile exhibit I worked on recently, was honored with the organization’s 2012 award. The exhibit team is thrilled! This photo wasn’t our celebration of the award. In fact, this was taken before the project was completed, and I don’t remember what we were celebrating. But who needs a reason to celebrate?

This was the main content development team—one of many teams that worked on various aspects of the project. The photos we’re holding up at the far end of the room are of the two people most responsible for the overarching content and themes of the exhibit—Donna Braden and Bob Casey. I don’t know why they weren’t there, but we were NOT celebrating their absence. Really, I swear. One thing you might notice is that the team is almost entirely women. HA! Take that, car guys everywhere!

This is the citation as printed in the program for the awards ceremony, held during the organization’s annual meeting–this year in Copenhagen. And no, I didn’t get to go to the ceremony. Dang.

Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits
Driving America, The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan

“The history of technology has long suffered an almost exclusively production-oriented perspective.  This is also a pertinent problem for museums of the history of technology, as artifacts of technology, the predominating exhibits on display, represent this production side.  It is an ingenious idea of the Henry Ford Museum to attempt to reverse this logic and focus on the use of technology and how it shaped society.  This is a particularly productive topic in the case of car history.

“Driving America explores the ways in which cars have transformed how we work, play, eat, and live.  It examines how we have adapted the automobile to our needs as well as how we have changed our world to adapt to the automobile’s needs.  This approach makes visible that choices are involved in the use of technology.  Moreover, visitors are challenged to think about how the choices we make today will affect the mobility of future generations.

“The exhibit successfully engages, entertains, and educates the general public, all of whom are familiar with automobiles, even if in many cases, without ever having thought about the car’s centrality in American civilization.  Driving America offers much for car buffs, who justly expect to see both rare and historically significant cars on their visit to the Henry Ford, which they would know has one of the most important automobile collections in the country.

“Driving America is what we would all expect as the winner of this prize: it is in a technology museum, exploring materials at the core of their collection.  The exhibit was able to display curatorial voice and selection with effective results. The Dibner committee would like to commend the curatorial team for Driving America, which does a masterful job of explaining the evolving role of the automobile in American life and the evolving technology and design of the automobile.”

ET and Me: Real Nashville

My band played at Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop in Nashville recently. It’s part museum, part record store, part music venue, and all real. It’s one of those rare places that evokes the presence of the past with no pretense or self-consciousness. As we were setting up, our bass player needed to elevate his small amp. We started to hand him an old wooden soda box—the type that little bottles of Coke were once shipped in. The sound guy stopped us. “That’s the box Loretta Lynn stood on when she sang here! She was so short the folks in the back couldn’t see her.”

If the place were a museum, that box would be an artifact in a case with a label. Here, the whole building and everything in it—the decor, the memorabilia, the staff, the shows, and the stories—is a living artifact.

It’s the continuity of purpose, I think, that keeps the record shop from being touristy. The stage is the same one Ernest Tubb played on when he opened the shop in 1947. The Midnite Jamboree radio show that he started is still broadcast every Saturday night at midnight, right after the Grand Ol’ Opry. Traveling bands and local legends play here often. People just crowd in off the street when the music starts, standing around the record (now CD) bins–no chairs, no drinks, no cover.

I wonder what will happen to the store if and when music recordings leave the physical realm for good. They sell shirts and books and trinkets too. But it wouldn’t be much of a record store without recordings.

As we were packing up and the store was shutting down, the sound man told us the place was once a Civil War era hospital. He said they’ve heard liquid splashing, as if from the second floor windows to the street below, when no one was upstairs. Footfalls on the old wooden floorboards. Sawing sounds.

I’m not sure about ghosts. But even a confirmed skeptic like me might be converted to a believer. Just before I left the stage, I swear I saw ET.

Judging Straightness

This summer I was asked to judge how straight people were. But it’s not what you think.

I was a judge in a plowing competition—plowing the old-fashioned way, with horses. A straight furrow is a point of pride with expert plowboys and plowgirls (or ploughboys and ploughgirls, for those who prefer the British variants).

It’s not that I have any particular skill in plowing, but the annual ALHFAM plowing competition was short a judge. (ALHFAM is the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums.) When the chief judge, Bob Powell of the Highland Folk Museum in Scotland, asked me to help out, he said it was because I won the novice class a few years ago, and the next year—by virtue of having participated one time—got bumped up to the expert, or “fine” plowing class and took third place.

I reminded him that it had been a low-turnout year.

Nonetheless, I agreed to judge mostly because I hoped to extract bribes in the form of cold liquids. After all, we were in Farmer’s Branch, Texas in the scorching summer of 2012.

Da Judge

Why did I wear boots on a 100 degree day? I’m not from Texas!

We had three judges: one looking for consistent depth, one assessing style, and this humble plowgirl judging straightness. Keeping the plow going straight isn’t straightforward, pun intended. Changes in the soil, such as impacted areas or patches of clay, can turn the point, as can obstacles such as rocks. And it’s a little like backing up a trailer or piloting a boat with an outboard motor—you turn the opposite the direction you want to move. With a plow it’s more of a lean than a turn, but the concept is similar.

One contestant wore a dress, perhaps in a misguided attempt to sway the style judge. But the rules committee declared that attire—including the presence or absence of manly footwear—was not to be evaluated. And yes, we’ve had people plow barefoot before.

The more experience competitors have, the less instruction they receive from the plowing coach. All contestants were ably assisted by Bonnie and Max, a pair of Percheron draft horses, and Ken Murray who handled the reins and talked to his team. True experts working with their own teams can handle both the plow and the reins, but thankfully Ken wasn’t part of the competition.

When we got to the banquet where the awards were to be given, I found out that everyone got free cold beer, so all bribes were off. I introduced the ceremony with a little ditty I’d penned on the bus, sung to the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Several ALHFAM members have asked for the lyrics. Why, I’m not sure. But here they are:

Oh say can you plow
When you do not know how?
While the judges hold court
And the horses are snorting?

The broad beam and bright share
Taken up on a dare,
While the road apples dropped
Were so bountifully steaming.

Yes the horse runs on grass!
No don’t look at his ass!
Keep your eyes on the dirt,
Best to not wear a skirt.

Oh say does that furrow
Look deep straight and true?
If it is, you win your class,
If it’s not, blame the ass!

One of the Canadian ALHFAM members asked me if it was disrespectful to appropriate the tune from our national anthem in this manner. I told him no, given that the tune started out as an English song celebrating wine, love, and poetry. Why can’t we celebrate beer, horses, and manure?

But in case some of you think I’m not sufficiently respecting America and/or plowing, here’s a poem written by Kentucky poet and author Jesse Stuart. It was published in 1934 in a collection of sonnets titled Man with a Bull Tongue Plow. He lived near where my mother grew up in eastern Kentucky, and near where my mom’s relatives (and my mom, when she was young) worked tobacco with mules for decades. Somewhere I have photos of one of my mom’s cousins in the tobacco with his mule team in 1977. If I can find them I’ll post them.

This is sonnet 10.

Hot summer days and we toil in the fields,
We hoe and plow tobacco, corn and cane,
We walk barefooted on mulch in the fields
Until the mulch is made mud by the rain,
When loose earth packs by rain we hoe again,
And when weeds grow we cut the weeds again.
Beneath the sun we watch the drifting skies,
We lift our hoes and look with sweat-dimmed eyes.
We watch the lazy drifting, drifting skies—
Tobacco leaves are pretty in the wind,
When all the weeds are cut around the stalks
And plows have cleaned the weeds well from the balks.
Tobacco plants are pretty in the wind—
Oh, prettier plants are harder now to find.
–Jesse Stuart

(Thanks to Derrick Birdsall for his photos, and for hosting a great conference.)

Eight Million Sunflower Seeds Can’t Be Wrong

The other day I spotted this headline: “Tate Buys 8 Million ‘Sunflower Seeds'”

For a moment, I thought that London’s famous Tate Modern was branching out into living history, or perhaps starting an heirloom seeds program like that of Pennsylvania’s Landis Valley Museum.

The single quotes should have tipped me off. These were hand-painted porcelain seeds, part of  a 100 million-seed art installation by Chinese artist Ai WeiWei. As I read on, I realized his original 2010 installation had a few similarities to some outdoor museum programs.

Seeds and plants–real ones–are important to many living history museums, as is the food that comes from them. But sometimes for the sake of interpretation, convenience, or cost, artifice comes into play. Imitation foods, products, people, or buildings can become stand-ins for the real thing, references to times and objects that no longer exist.

Mr. Ai’s handpainted seeds have multiple references: sunflower seeds were an important food source in difficult times; the tiny nuggets reminded him of tweets; Mao had called the Chinese people “sunflowers.” Mr. Ai hired 1600 Chinese artisans to make the seeds in a town where traditional porcelainware had been the mainstay for over 1000 years. In that sense, this project was a new application of traditional skills honed over generations–something some of the best living history museums also try to do by learning, preserving, and adapting historical methods and practices.

At first, Tate staff encouraged visitors to touch or wade through the pile of porcelain seeds. But they soon realized that the visitors’ movements caused the seeds to grind together, releasing hazardous dust. How many times have living history museums encouraged visitors to touch, feel, or immerse themselves in an activity and then had to back track when something went awry?

I don’t want to overextend the analogy. I was just having fun thinking about this modern art installation in terms of living history. But the folks at Landis Valley’s heirloom seed operation may want to take note: Sotheby’s sold a portion of the work–100,000 seeds–in London last year for more than half a million dollars. That’s about $5.60 per seed. Perhaps instead of printing an order form, Landis Valley should hire an auctioneer.

UPDATE Feb 3, 2013: Here’s a link to a CBS Sunday Morning feature on Ai WeiWei and a show of his work at the Hirshorn. Powerful.

Driving America Opening Photos

Here are a few photos of the Driving America opening at Henry Ford Museum last night. We didn’t take very many–too many people to talk to, too much going on! For some other photos, here’s a link to the Detroit News story. And yes, that’s me and my brother pictured and quoted in the article. Wall Street Journal also did a nice review, but no photos. After working so hard on this project it was nice to just get to enjoy it!

Me and Bob Casey
Curator of Transportation Bob Casey, me, and the 1865 Roper Steam Carriage.
One of several touch-screen interactives designed by Cortina Productions. In this one you learn to drive a Model T and have to navigate around several challenges, including cattle on the road. I led the concept development team for the interactives.
Hot Rods
Hot rods and cool customs
customs case
Low-profile cases in the exhibit provide cultural context. This one is on custom cars, and features artifacts and images from well-known customizers Chuck Miller and the Alexander Brothers.
My brother, Command Sgt Major John Seelhorst, and I talked with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood at the event.

“A Thoroughfare of Freedom Beat Across the Wilderness”

This lyric from America the Beautiful came to mind today as I walked through the woods. The song was on my mind because a presidential candidate started quoting it recently in order to stir the Passions of the Patriotic Bosom. (Don’t worry, this isn’t a political screed.)

My route traversed a marshy area along Florida’s Shingle Creek, where Palmetto and wiregrass grow among wild grapevines, black gum and bald cypress. Today, the dark water creeps slowly under Kissimmee’s busy Vine Street–part of a network of wide asphalt boulevards that all seem to lead to Disneyworld. Few drivers ever see the creek, and the closest many tourists get is gazing at it from the bridge while walking to the Shingle Creek bus stop.

But not so long ago this creek was itself a thoroughfare on which commerce moved. A chain of rivers, lakes, and creeks allowed a person to travel from Orlando to Miami on water alone. Seminole indians, settlers, traders, hunters, tourists, farmers—all traveled Florida by water long before asphalt was invented. Although many paths and trails were indeed “beat across the wilderness” by wild hogs and scrub cattle, hopeful families and warring armies, the waterways were always there—at least until the great drainage projects of the late 19th century. But that’s another story.

The word “freedom” is politically charged these days with as much freight as the old steamers that used to ply Florida’s waterways once carried. You probably expect a screed about how horrible all the new Disney-driven development is, but that’s not my point.  As a culture, we’ve made choices about our thoroughfares of freedom, and I’m not going to judge them here. (I’m in Kissimmee, Florida to work with the Osceola County Historical Society on an outdoor museum project, so you can probably guess whether I prefer the wild kingdom or the Magic Kingdom™.)

Taking the long view, these new developments and roadways and tourist attractions are just new paths beat across the old wilderness. But the wilderness is still there under the Google-mapped grid. The rivers and creeks still flow from Orlando to Miami. You just don’t see them unless you get out of the car and look.

When I left the woods and walked back to my hotel,  I noticed how plants decorate the seams in abandoned parking lots and poked through every crack in every curb. Maybe they’re waiting us out, hoping we’ll forget to seal the cracks and repave the roads.

Until then, I want to encourage people to get off the thoroughfare and look at what’s left of the old wilderness. It’s closer than you think.

No Longer Under Construction

I’ve owned the domain name maryseelhorst.com for years, but I never wanted to have a web site or a blog. Why bother? When you google my name, what y0u find is pretty much me—give or take a petty thief. (And to find her, you have to know my middle initial.) Because I’ve led an exemplary life—well, online anyway—there isn’t much out there on the internet machine that requires plausible deniability.

People who wanted to find me could always find me. For my main line of work—museum exhibit development and exhibit script writing—word of mouth worked just fine. It seemed to be an appropriate way to find someone who studied folklore in grad school. And because word of mouth includes a lot of context, it meant I didn’t have to repeatedly answer the question frequently asked: “Are  you an exhibit designer?” (For the record: no, but I work with designers on most projects.)

Finding my band is easier. (You can go to the band’s web site, or find us on Facebook.) But because I’m too busy these days to do many gigs outside the band, it didn’t make sense to maintain a web site. And if I had one, I’d have to answer the other question frequently asked: “What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin? (For the record: it’s the way you play it. And I play fiddle, not violin.)

So what made me change my mind? First, that embarrassing “site under construction” page you get when there’s no there there. Second, my husband’s pseudo-semi-kinda-sorta-retiring at the end of this week. As a major automotive journalist, he’s better known than I am but has a more generic name. Googling him could be dangerous—who knows what kind of reprehensible deeds other Tony Swans have committed? Despite his Luddite tendencies I convinced him to manage his own brand and  start a blog.

So I figured I’d better put my arse out there too; what’s good for the cob is good for the pen (sorry, you have to know your swan-like waterfowl taxonomy to get that one). I may not post often, but at least you’ll be able to find it.