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!)

 

NTS+GUI=HGH+AVT=YOD+BIS (WTF?)

I’ve been a fan of sci-fi-cyberpunk-whatever-you-call-it-or-him author Neal Town Stephenson for years—well, decades actually. From back when he had hair. (No, I’m not trying to insult him even though I probably just did. I’m a few months older than he is, and besides, I think he shaves his head.)

(BTW, the title of this post is a lame attempt at doing a Neal Stephenson-style title. Eventually, if you care to try, you might figure it out. I tried using some HTML symbols in it, but Word Press wanted to read it as actual HTML. It got weird. But no weirder than my love of parenthetical asides.)

I first became aware of him sometime in the mid-1990s through one of his articles in Wired. I kept a few, the oldest a 1994 issue that included “Spew,” a short story that today I’d describe as The Matrix meets Hee Haw. (Now that I think of it, The Matrix would have been more fun with a few Buck Owens types. Imagine if The Oracle turned out to be Minnie Pearl!)IMG_4917

Whenever I look back at Stephenson’s older works I invariably find a passage which has new resonance with me. For instance, if I changed “guy” to “gal,” I could have written the first sentence of “Spew” about myself today:

Yeah, I know it’s boring of me to send you plain old Text like this, and I hope you don’t just blow this message off without reading it. But what can I say, I was an English major. On video, I come off like a stunned bystander. I’m just a Text kind of guy.

Video is massively more important today than in 1994, but I’m still a video voyeur. I’ll view it, I’ll shoot it, but I don’t want to be in it. (I’m a Twitter voyeur too, but that’s another story.)

In keeping with my habit taking a fresh look at Neal’s old works, I cracked open the slim non-fiction paperback, In the Beginning was the Command Line, his 1999 analysis of the state of computing back when the Mac v Windows debate actually mattered. (“Cracked open” is not a cliché in this case. The book was so brittle the binding literally cracked.) It was published in that short span of time after all the other commercial operating systems had flamed out and the era of the mobile device had not yet dawned. (Yes, Linux was around, but A, it’s free, and B, it was only used by serious nerds. Some things never change.)

It was fun to re-read Stephenson’s take on the relationship between computers, their users, and their designers and coders and think about our first home computer (an Osborne “portable” with a CPM operating system), or recall that first magical mouse moment (complete with phantom wrist pain).

But then I read a paragraph that instantly—in my head, anyway—became a dead-on analogy between early developments in computer operating systems and today’s Next Big Thing in automotive engineering: the drive-by-wire-on-human-growth-hormone known as the autonomous vehicle. Maybe someday it’ll make cars safer. But will cars still be fun? I doubt it. Makes me want to hang on to my 2003 Mini Cooper S with the John Cooper Works performance package. No USB port, but on the upside no snoopy black boxes or mommy-car helpers either.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about Autonomous Vehicle Technology (AVT) lately.

So here’s Stephenson on the graphical user interface, or GUI—all the graphics and images and icons that mask the zeroes and ones that comprise the code running the machine:

The introduction of the Mac triggered a sort of holy war in the computer world. Were GUIs a brilliant design innovation that made computers more human-centered and therefore accessible to the masses, leading us toward an unprecedented revolution in human society, or an insulting bit of audiovisual gimcrackery dreamed up by flaky Bay Area hacker types that stripped computers of their power and flexibility and turned the noble and serious work of computing into a childish video game?

With apologies to Stephenson, here’s my automotive analog:

The introduction of autonomous vehicles triggered a sort of holy war in the automotive world. Was autonomous driving a brilliant design innovation that made vehicles more practical and therefore safer for the masses, leading us toward an unprecedented revolution in human mobility, or an insulting bit of drive-by-wire gimcrackery dreamed up by ambitious Bay Area corporations and embraced by Detroit, et al, that stripped automobiles of the power of human-machine interface and turned the noble and serious work of driving into a childish video game—sans joystick?

I had never before thought of the increasing digitization of the automobile/driver interface as a GUI, but it pretty much is. Although there is an irreducible number of mechanical interfaces required to move a mass of metal, plastic, rubber, and glass down the road, there is no longer any such restriction in the cockpit. With an autonomous vehicle, no mechanical interface is required to start and control the vehicle, other than perhaps Butt in Seat (AKA BIS).

BIS was the same AVT once enjoyed by drunks in Ye Olden Days (YOD), when Old Dobbin waiting patiently outside the tavern could be relied upon to know the way home no matter what state his owner was in.

In YOD horse/rider interface code, the program might read:

Butt in Saddle
Home Dobbin!
Run
End

In the 21st century however, the fact that your ride has a brain (virtual or actual) won’t get your DUI charges dropped. I recently saw a news item about a guy in Louisiana who got pulled over and ticketed for riding his horse under the influence (would that be an RUI?). (For some reason this reminds me of when my horse-avoiding husband—auto journalist Tony Swan—said to a horse-owning friend, “I refuse to drive anything with its own brain,” to which our friend said “Have I got the horse for you!”)

So after all this appropriation and misapplication of Neal Stephenson’s genius, this is the only semi-profound thing I came up with: did it ever occur to you that the abbreviation for “Neal Town Stephenson’s Books” is NTSB, AKA the National Transportation Safety Board? No, I’ll bet it did not.

(A belated postscript: Someone asked me to help decipher the title of this post, and when I revisited it I realized I’d forgotten what HGH stood for and it took me 10 minutes to find it in the text! So here it is: Neal Town Stephenson plus Graphical User Interface equals Human Growth Hormone plus Autonomous Vehicle Technology equals Ye Olden Days plus Butt in Seat.)

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!

 

Q: How do you win a one-minute-story writing contest?

A: Take more than one minute to write it.

Depending on where you put the hyphens, it could be writing a story in a minute, or writing a story that can be read in a minute. This was the later. I won’t analyze the possible hyphen permutations now, although it’s a fun exercise if you’re a grammar geek.

Along with two other Michiganders (I reluctantly have to call myself that now, since I’ve lived here for almost 28 years!), I was honored to be selected as one of three winners of the Michigan Radio story-writing contest. Out of 175 entries, that’s not too bad.

The rules specified no more than 120 words—about what can be read in a minute. A friend suggested I enter. He thought my experience writing museum exhibit labels might be helpful. In fact, when I heard I had 120 words, I was thrilled. That’s almost twice as much as I have for most exhibit labels!

The occasion for the contest was the Michigan Humanities Council “Great Michigan Read,” a statewide program focusing on a book about, or written by, a Michigan author. Schools, book clubs, libraries, and other groups participate in readings, author discussions, etc. over the course of two years. The winners of the radio contest were selected in time for the finale event of the Great Michigan Read. The winners were invited, and in addition to good food and great beer, we got signed copies of the featured book, Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg. (If I’d known about it earlier, I’d have suggested a traveling exhibit to go along with the program. Maybe next time!)

The book provided the theme for the radio contest: “Hidden branches of your family tree: Unexpected stories that changed the way you think of yourself or your family.” Steve Luxenberg is an editor at the Washington Post. He read our winning stories at the event, noting that his journalists often turn in lengthy stories with this apology: “Sorry it’s so long; I didn’t have time to write it short.”

Of course Steve is right. When I’m bidding on an exhibit label writing project, I’m always reluctant to offer per-word pricing. You have to learn as much as possible about the subject, much of which will never make it into the label. But in order to choose which bits would make the best label, you have to have all the bits in your head. Then you have to focus on the most intriguing part of the story, and chose every word for maximum information and impact. Often that means editing it several times.

I thought it was interesting that all the winning stories set up the tale, but didn’t try to complete it. They tell about the moment of discovery with no attempt to fill in the blanks. The reader wants to know more.

My trick is to read it out loud before declaring a label complete. So the idea that these short stories would be read on the radio was intriguing. I’ll admit I was disappointed with the way it was read/recorded for the show. But I’ll link to it anyway, and print it below. My disappointment made me remember how critical an actor’s craft is to the success of a play or a movie. I read a lot of Shakespeare starting in 6th grade, but soon discovered that reading a play and seeing good actors perform it were entirely different experiences. The nuance, emphasis, timing, and gestures added meanings I never imagined.

I’ve been wanting to write some of our nutty old family tales for years, but I could never decide if they should be histories, fictionalized novels, songs, poems, or short stories. Well, I now have a start, thanks to Michigan Radio!

The Revelation

Portsmouth Ohio, 1951. Walking with his new wife, my father watched an older man shuffling toward them. As they drew closer, he saw a face partially paralyzed, tragic eyes, trembling hands. “Poor bastard,” he thought. “I wonder what happened to him.”

Suddenly his wife drew up stiffly. “Uncle Noah! It’s been so long since I’ve seen you!” They spoke quietly—pleasantries mostly—then Uncle Noah limped on. Uncle Jack. Uncle Hobart. But Uncle Noah?

Before he could ask, the woman who became my mother leaned toward him, eyes straight ahead, voice low. “They never did get the bullet out of his brain.” As if it were normal. As if he knew what had happened. And why.

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 www.thug-notes.com 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.