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!)

 

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.