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Archive for the ‘City History’ Category

Comment Board Memorial Location 3

A lot has happened since I wrote my post about the Boston Marathon bombings. It’s time for an update.

The bombing site reopened to the public on Wednesday, April 22 24, a week ago today. I’ve walked the Back Bay twice since then and found it so very comforting to see people out on the streets. People are the lifeblood of any city, and their absence in and around Copley Square the week of the bombings was even more jarring to me than the sight of soldiers and armored jeeps in front of the Boston Public Library. On both Thursday the 25th and Tuesday the 30th Copley was bursting with people of all stripes—office workers, buskers, skate punks, dandies, tourists, runners, campaign volunteers, dog walkers, moms with strollers. Bostonians are trying hard to get back to normal, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not. On both walks I let myself get lost in the crowd; that’s what normal means to me.

I have paid four visits to the makeshift bombing memorial: April 20, 22, 25, and 30. Each time I have taken photos to document both the objects left there and the ways people are interacting with the memorial. Each time it has changed significantly since my last visit. It keeps getting bigger, of course. Twice it has changed location. Location 1 was in the middle of the intersection of Boylston and Berkeley, up against the police barricade that blocked Boylston to all traffic:

MarathonMemorial

In anticipation of reopening the crime scene, it moved about 50 feet to Location 2, against the side of a building at that same intersection:

Memorial Location 2

Then, perhaps when it became clear this public ritual needed a space befitting its importance to the city, Location 3 was organized at the north side of Copley Square itself:

Memorial Location 3

Locations 1 and 2 felt cold and hard—nothing but concrete and police barriers against a backdrop devoid of people. By contrast Location 3 feels much more human. It’s a large, U-shaped enclosure on the edge of the Copley lawn, an outdoor room of sorts. Ten of the Copley trees are inside the enclosure, and many of the signs and mementos people have left are propped against their trunks or hanging from their branches, with pathways in between. People are out and about again, and they circulate through the memorial, moving from tree to tree, like visitors at an exhibition. Memorial 3 feels like the right place, a place at the heart of the city.

At Location 1 people left their objects themselves, with no particular logic other than where they could find available space. But when volunteers moved everything to Location 2, they organized the memorial. Three white crosses, one each for Lu Lingzi, Martin Richard, and Krystle Campbell, became more clearly the centerpiece of the memorial. Around them, flowers were placed with flowers, stuffed animals with stuffed animals, and shoes with shoes. When the memorial moved a second time, this order was maintained and expanded. As someone who studies cities, I find the most striking addition at Location 3 to be the symbols of Boston’s membership in the global sisterhood of cities—”Istanbul Stands with Boston,” “Stay Strong –Miami,” “Nashville Believes in Boston”—but there is much more. There are several large comment boards people can sign. There are many, many shoes. There is a hat section and a flag section.

Which leads me to one of the most important parts of the memorial: its unofficial caretaker, Kevin Brown. He is not the only or the first person to tend the memorial but he has been its most enduring volunteer.

Kevin Brown Memorial Location 1

A carpenter from Brockton, he has been there during three of my four visits. At Location 1, he and another volunteer were handing out single roses for the children in the crowd to add to the memorial, to give them a way of actively participating in the ritual. At Location 2, which blocked public access to the memorial much more formally than Location 1, mourners had to pass their mementos across the police barrier for Brown to place, and he obliged repeatedly and good-naturedly, honoring requests for him to pose for photographs, answering questions, and following instructions like “please place this around the neck of the black stuffed dog.” He told me volunteers were organizing that night, in advance of the storms predicted for Tuesday the 23rd, to bag anything that would get damaged by water. He told me some of the marathon medals had been stolen so they had started setting all the medals aside for safekeeping. He told me he watched a female runner walk up to the memorial, take off her shoes, add them to the pile, and walk away barefoot. He told me he was going to make a fourth cross for Sean Collier. Not only was he the citizen curator of Location 2, he was also its docent; guiding people through the mourning ritual. Kevin Brown’s role at Location 3 on Copley Square is different. Because the memorial has grown so big that you can walk around in it, you could miss Brown if you didn’t know to look for him. He has a chair now. I watched him make a round to water all the potted plants, and then another round to light all the candles (it was 6 pm). I was glad to see him.

Kevin Brown Lights Candles Memorial Location 3

I want to pay particular attention to Kevin Brown because in so many ways he is my counterpart and colleague, even if we don’t really know each other. He quickly and spontaneously took up a role at this memorial that I have trained for and practiced for more than 15 years. While he has been out there in the sun and rain every day, those of us in Boston’s museum and archive community—the professionals—have been moving more slowly. Granted, there are reasons we are moving slowly. The stakes are high when you’re talking about caring for things in perpetuity and we want to do this right (or as close to right as we can). We have indeed made some progress. We have been systematically checking in with each institution in the area, and our list of whether and what each one plans to collect is nearly complete (most notably, at Mayor Menino’s direction, the Boston City Archives will preserve items from the memorial). Historic New England has offered its fumigation bubble to ensure that bombing-related artifacts are pest-free before they are introduced into existing collections. We have made contact with folks at the 9/11 Memorial who have offered valuable advice and ongoing support. We are trying to organize pro bono legal counsel to advise on all manner of issues, from how Massachusetts abandoned property laws will affect collecting to release forms for oral histories.

I remain concerned that we still have not identified homes for all of the material that should be collected from this event. Boston deserves a thoughtful, compelling, and flawlessly executed exhibition of this material on the one-year anniversary of the bombings—to help Bostonians process their emotions and memories and transform them into some sort of positive civic engagement for the city. But there is so much work to be done in order to tell this story—and tell it well—I remain concerned about that too. One thing I am not concerned about is Kevin Brown. This week Kevin Brown is my curatorial hero. This week Kevin Brown is the heart at the heart of Boston.

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Alphabetical Family Meeting Area Marathon Signs

All week I have been trying to look at the events unfolding here in Boston through the lens of city museums. Boston doesn’t have a proper city museum. If Boston did have a proper city museum, I would’ve wanted it this week to open wide its doors to the city for solace and reflection (many existing museums in Boston did in fact do so) and to serve as a place for civic dialogue while Bostonians struggled to understand and respond to the bombings, individually and collectively. I would’ve wanted it to collect and document the material culture of this event, and I would’ve wanted it to actively participate in city-wide efforts to interpret and memorialize the bombings.

Museum workers are not first responders—let’s be clear about that. But they are part of the second and third and fourth waves. They are public servants, and in times of crisis their job is to collect and document, tell the story, keep the memory, and help the public make meaning of it all. Boston doesn’t have a city museum to do that work right now. I am writing this post to call attention to what we are missing without one, and also to do my part as an urban public historian to capture and frame the details of what Bostonians experienced this week. Right now I’m not so concerned about the facts and timeline—plenty of people are recording and analyzing the chain of events. Rather I care about ordinary Bostonians: what they felt and expressed, and how they are integrating the bombings into their own personal narratives of the city.

As most of you know by now (if you didn’t know already), Marathon Monday always takes place on Patriots’ Day, which is a state holiday that commemorates the Battle of Lexington and Concord and the start of the American Revolution. It also launches April school vacation week and serves as Boston’s unofficial first day of spring. Every year on Marathon Monday thousands of Bostonians turn out to support and cheer on the runners along the course. And if they aren’t at the marathon, they’re at the Red Sox game or at gatherings of family and friends all over the city. For all these reasons Boston’s collective emotional barometer was particularly high on April 15 just before it sunk so precipitously.

As Bostonians tried to make sense of the bombings this week they turned to history for signs of past resilience: the city that withstood the Siege of Boston and “invented America,” the city that survived the Molasses Flood and the Big Dig. They turned to the brand Boston projects to the world to reassure themselves about the city’s essential character: John Winthrop’s city upon a hill, with one of the best medical communities in the country; a city that welcomes thousands of people from all over the world each year to its universities. They turned to Boston’s popular culture—Dirty Water, Cheers, Good Will Hunting—to express their love and fidelity. And they turned to Boston’s sports teams—the closest thing we have to urban warriors in 2013—for signs of continuity and strength. As they did so, Bostonians were not all on the same page about what constitutes an appropriate level of tolerance, empathy, or law and order; they were not all on the same page about how to mourn and when to get back to business as usual.

Every urban resident carries a mental map of their city inside their head. It’s how they navigate on a daily basis, and it’s layered with personal memories and landmarks. Most Bostonians had to look up Norfolk Street in Cambridge and Franklin Street in Watertown on Friday during the manhunt for suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. No one had to look up the finish line stretch of Boylston Street where the bombings took place; it’s on every Bostonian’s mental map. They could instantly reel off the landmarks on those two blocks: the Copley Green Line station, Boston Public Library, Old South Church, the Lenox Hotel, Lord & Taylor, Marathon Sports. They could instantly recall years of personal memories—some mundane, some poignant—that were created there.

What a city museum would understand better than anyone else is that the bombings tore a hole in our mental maps. On Saturday afternoon I went down to the bombing site to try to get a handle on the exact nature of that hole. I took the Orange Line to Back Bay Station, walked up to the south side of Copley Square, and then skirted the southern and eastern edge of the secured crime scene perimeter. On one hand what I observed was comfortingly the same as always. The flower stall outside Back Bay Station was selling spring tulips in every color imaginable. The doormen at the Copley Plaza were at their post, greeting guests in tuxedos and evening gowns arriving for a wedding. Runners were running; college students were turning up for a Saturday night out on the town. The landmarks themselves—the library, the churches, the Hancock Tower, were all still there. On the other hand it was disturbingly, radically different. Even after the barricades are gone and the city returns to some version of normal, we need to remember that radical difference.

CopleyBarricade

Every flag I saw was at half mast. Wolf Blitzer and a half-dozen TV journalists were broadcasting cheek-by-jowl on the corner outside the Copley Place Westin, lights blazing and TV trucks humming. Across the street from the news teams, roughly eight men in camouflage and bullet-proof vests, along with several armored jeeps, guarded the barricade at the southwest corner of Copley Square. By that point, with the threat to the city subsiding, they were spending most of their time making small talk with passersby, posing for pictures, and giving directions. Lots and lots of directions—many pedestrians were having trouble figuring out how to get where they were going without crossing Copley Square. A Boston traffic cop was also there directing cars that were having similar difficulty navigating around the hole in the city.

MarathonMemorial

I walked east toward the corner of Clarendon and St James, where the lawn of Trinity Church was still strewn with plastic cups and marathon debris. No one had gotten around to removing the Family Meeting Area signs attached to the lampposts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that on Marathon Day give runners a way of finding their loved ones in the finish line crowd. At Boylston and Berkeley I stopped at the makeshift memorial and watched people pay their respects. Many of the items that had been placed there were still wet from that morning’s rain. Two older men were tending the memorial; one of them gave single yellow roses to kids in the crowd so they could lay them near the three crosses at the center of the memorial. Five or six therapy dogs were on hand and getting lots of attention.

I caught the Green Line at Arlington Station, heading outbound to a friend’s birthday party in Newton Centre. As the digital announcement system in my subway car flashed Entering Copley, we rode through but did not stop at Copley Station. The station was empty and dark except for a few dim security lights, still closed as part of the crime scene.

On Thursday night I talked with the students in my material culture course about the bombings and I asked them what they thought should be collected and preserved in order to capture the experience of Boston this week. With a few additional objects added in by me, their ideas included:

  • Marathon medals, bib numbers, space blankets, and yellow runner bags
  • The international flags from the finish line
  • Yellow Boston Police and BAA Physician vests, marathon volunteer jackets, hospital equipment
  • Bill Iffrig‘s orange singlet
  • Carlos Arredondo’s bloodied American flag
  • Martin Richard’s “No more hurting people. Peace” poster
  • Signs and t-shirts of support—local, national, and international
  • Slain MIT police officer Sean Collier’s uniform
  • The makeshift memorial at Boylston and Berkeley
  • Red Sox and Bruins memorial jerseys
  • Mayor Tom Menino’s hospital bracelet
  • The technology of the police investigation
  • The recovered lid from the pressure cooker bomb
  • The covered boat on Franklin Street in Watertown where suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hid on Friday
  • Photographs, video, news and social media feeds, oral histories, statements by public officials, luminaries, and celebrities
  • The soundscape of the week: the typical happy sounds of the marathon (the starting gun, cheering spectators, cowbells) giving way to the explosion and confusion at the finish line; ambulances and helicopters, gunshots and house-to-house searches; and finally cheers of relief and gratitude as the second suspect was taken into custody

And this has been my growing concern throughout the week: that in the absence of a proper city museum, Boston is not prepared to document and collect this story. There is no museum in the city that has a mandate to collect contemporary Boston history. There are several institutions that will likely preserve paper records and photographs, but objects—particularly a collection of this scale—are another matter. I am reaching out to local colleagues to find out if efforts are underway that I just don’t know about yet, and if not, to see if something might be done.

I want to end by urging you to read a piece from today’s Boston Globe Ideas section by Stephen Heuser titled Vulnerability in an Open City. If I were planning an exhibition about the marathon bombings for a Boston city museum, this essay would be my compass. Heuser sets out to make larger points about social capital, openness, and risk that apply to any city, but he does it against the backdrop of Boston. In the process he captures in vivid detail the experience of everyday Bostonians this week. In his telling, we see the moral of this story and a value every city museum should hold: “cities bring us together in spite of ourselves.”

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I am traveling in Italy at the moment, and earlier this week I had an opportunity to visit the new Museum of the History of Bologna, which opened in January of this year. It’s housed in the former palace of the Pepoli family, and it’s part of a larger project, Genus Bononiae, initiated by the Carisbo Foundation to restore and link together eight cultural sites in Bologna. The Museum of the History of Bologna is a particularly interesting city museum for several reasons, one of which is that it’s a distinct departure from the “museo civico” model found in so many Italian cities. At some point I need to write a proper blog post about my experience there. But as is often the case when I visit for the first time a museum I really like, the seed of a new idea is planted in my head and I feel compelled to spend my post sharing that instead.

The idea I had in Bologna was sparked by a gallery at the city museum called “Your Museum” (pictured above). Its goal is to involve Bologna residents by inviting them to bring their own objects to be exhibited in the museum. Massimo Negri, the museum’s scientific director (i.e. chief content developer), told me he had originally hoped this gallery would be much bigger, with a system where people could bring in their objects and on the spot have them added to the display. Unfortunately, due to space and logistical constraints, he had to settle for the iteration I saw.

Many museums are now interested in public participation, and they have been experimenting with the best ways to do it; Your Museum in Bologna is one example. At the same time, we also acknowledge that the museum collections we have inherited, formed in previous centuries, were assembled haphazardly, with major gaps in the stories they can tell. They leave out large groups of people and do not adequately represent the breadth of our history and culture. In short, the objects that have made their way into our museum collections represent only a tiny fraction of our entire material heritage. I’ve been thinking about these challenges a lot recently, as have many of you, I’m sure. I’ve also been thinking a lot about my recent visit to the Museu da Maré, a community museum in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Museu da Maré has a much more flexible collections policy than museums are normally used to: a member of the community can donate an object to the museum and then, if later he or she wants it back, the museum gives it back. Community members might also technically give the museum an object but still keep it in their home. I have heard that the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa has a similar policy. Mix all of these concepts together and you end up with my Idea du Jour:

Can a city museum catalog the material life of its city without actually acquiring and owning it? Imagine a zoo that collects animals from the wild and puts them together in cages. Currently, our museums are like zoos. Now imagine a biologist who tracks and studies animals, but never takes them out of the wild. We have sophisticated RFID tags and we have extensive object database software. Why not conduct a material culture census, or inventory, of a city, but not actually collect anything?

This may seem like a lot of work for nothing. I would have said that too five years ago, but the museum landscape has changed enough that I think we could start to see the potential. There are so many opportunities here for public participation. Residents can catalog their own objects, with or without the help of a curator. People can “like” the objects they are particularly drawn to, or contribute additional information about objects posted by other people. Curators can put out a call for certain gaps in the “collection” that need to be filled. But perhaps also a resident can recommend that her neighbor’s object be added to the collection because it has a great story. And perhaps if an object gets many, many likes, it is then recommended for physical acquisition by the museum (subject to the owner’s approval, of course), a kind of crowdsourced method of determining which artifacts are most important to preserve, combined with some gentle community pressure for public ownership of them. Individuals could also recommend a neighbor’s object for exhibition at the museum, and so on. The role of the museum curator, then, is to highlight really interesting objects, monitor and improve accuracy, draw connections, and start conversations.

Because, as you know, I am obsessed with geotagging objects, I think it would be great to have a mapping component where you can see all these objects existing out in real space, out in “the wild,” across the city. Although that may present a security risk that could serve as a deterrent to community members. If people know you have special things in your home then maybe they want to steal them. (And who knows what other practical considerations this idea raises since I’m really just thinking it off the top of my head.) On the other hand, many objects no longer live in the place where they had the most geographic meaning, so the tags on the map don’t necessarily have to represent current location, just location of meaning. Also, it would be easy enough to hide the identity of object owners so that only the museum has personal contact information.

But wouldn’t it be interesting to see what happens when the material culture of a place is collectively exposed in this way, regardless of whether it is owned privately or publicly? Would it make us rethink what cultural heritage means, and perhaps assume a different kind of shared responsibility? I wonder if anyone out there has already experimented with this concept–if so chime in and let me know. Otherwise, let’s make it happen somewhere as a pilot project.

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A few weeks ago I spent a couple of hours at the Museum of the City of New York seeing the temporary exhibition The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011, which runs through April 15. I’m really glad I got down to New York for this show, because it reinforces a lot of the concepts I’ve been exploring on this blog, and in my research on city museums in general.

I got there around 1:00 pm, and the museum was a lot busier than it had been the last time I visited in July 2011, when the main temporary exhibition was about colonial revival architecture. I had to wait in a line 20 people deep at the admission desk, and it was a good thing I arrived when I did. By the time I left at 3:00 not only had the admission line gotten longer but there was also a separate line for The Greatest Grid; the exhibition was so popular that the gallery housing it reached fire code capacity. I talked to a security guard who said it had been that crowded every weekend since the exhibition opened. At one point the exhibition curator, Hilary Ballon, showed up to do a gallery talk and had to use a microphone to be heard amidst a sea of attentive visitors.

Blockbuster exhibitions happen all the time at art museums, and at a lot of science museums too, but they are rare at city history museums. Why is The Greatest Grid so popular? From what I observed during my visit, I would say that MCNY struck a chord with New Yorkers. The museum could’ve presented a fairly standard urban planning exhibition, filled with historic maps, and gotten a reasonable turnout. But instead a decision was made to structure the exhibition around the concept of the Manhattan street grid—why and how it was developed, and what effect it has had on the city over time. That’s a concept that New Yorkers can really sink their teeth into.

Anyone who lives or works in Manhattan contends with the grid on a daily basis (click here to see an excerpt from 12×155, a video installation by artist Neil Goldberg, included in the exhibition, that illustrates this point quite effectively). Not only (says the gal from Boston) is it a particularly easy system to navigate—because of the grid you always know which way is north, and how long it will take to get from one place to another—but it also has a lot to do with what makes New York, New York. For example, the 19th-century real estate boom set in motion by the introduction of the grid is one of the big reasons NYC became such a financial powerhouse. And because the grid doesn’t really allow for inner courtyards, it constantly pushes Manhattanites out on the streets, ratcheting up the energy to that frenetic level we all associate with NYC.

Consequently, what I observed at the exhibition was a gallery packed full of locals in small social groups, spending a very long time pointing and talking about this grid and what it means to them. Often they were trying to find themselves—their home—on the historic maps, but just as often they were pointing out all the interesting things they noticed about how other parts of the city had changed. Here’s my slide show of all the pointers:

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Anyone who follows Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog knows that museums have a new imperative to craft social experiences that compel visitors to engage with one another while learning. The Greatest Grid is very effective on this level.

Another thing the exhibition team did really well was to develop a small companion exhibition, The Unfinished Grid: Design Speculations for Manhattan, installed upstairs from the main gallery. It features the eight winners of a call for ideas sponsored by MCNY and the Architectural League of New York that asked architects and urban planners to envision ways of improving the grid for the 21st-century. These proposals are quite creative, and pull in visitors even further by asking them to consider whether the grid actually works in its current form. They also reinforce a theme introduced by the main exhibition, that the grid was not inevitable but exists because of—and will continue to be shaped by—a series of urban planning decisions. I’ve written before about the need for city museums to address not just the past but also the present and future of their cities. Therefore I was glad to see The Unfinished Grid help visitors extend the historical timeline to include both contemporary urban life as well as hopes and dreams for a New York still to come.

But the exhibition team missed an opportunity to address another new imperative that Nina Simon regularly writes about: creating experiences where visitors actively participate in making meaning, alongside the curators. If I were a New Yorker visiting this exhibition, filled with excitement and new knowledge about something that feels very personal and real in my daily life, I would want to express it beyond my own social group. I would want to stick comments on a giant map of Manhattan, or photograph myself sharing the most interesting thing I learned, or vote on my favorite avenue. And doing so would help me see beyond my own experience, to the collective life on the street that all New Yorkers share.

New Yorkers, get thee to MCNY to see this exhibition, and then tell me what you think. Do you find it compelling? Did it make you want to share your own experience of the grid? What did you point at?

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In October I flew to Aarhus, Denmark, to give a paper at an urban history conference hosted by the open air museum Den Gamle By. The Aarhus City Museum just merged with Den Gamle By, and the conference was organized in part to guide strategic planning efforts under the new management structure. This is a video of my talk; it’s a half-hour in length. Hardcore city museum folks will also want to check out the other conference presentations, not only from Aarhus but also Copenhagen, Rotterdam, and Ghent—each one has a different take on urban history.

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Have you heard about the City Reliquery in Brooklyn, NYC? It’s a special place. It began in 2002 when artist Dave Herman started displaying things in the window of his ground-floor apartment, things he had collected over the years, little bits of the city. Other Brooklynites started to notice and encourage the window exhibition, and gradually the collection grew. In 2006 the City Reliquery moved into its own building on Metropolitan Avenue, where it hosts a robust lineup of temporary exhibitions and community events. For more background on the Reliquery you might want to listen to this NPR piece by Diantha Parker.

I visited this summer and was impressed by how vibrant and imaginative the City Reliquery felt, even as a small space on a shoestring budget. Here’s a photo of the entryway:

And here are a couple of photos of the main gallery, showing the kinds of relics the Reliquery collects:

Temporary exhibitions are mounted in the back gallery; when I was there it was the work of Colin the Slice Harvester. Colin is trying to eat a slice of pizza at every pizzeria in NYC; he rates and photographs as he goes:

And lastly, here’s the back courtyard, where City Reliquery hosts both a film and a concert series, show-and-tell nights, craft nights, and other community events:

City Reliquery Courtyard

This is a completely different kind of space than the local historical society one typically finds in communities across the country, which makes sense because Brooklyn is so different from most communitiesit has become the artist/writer/hipster capital of the United States (and in fact the NPR piece referenced above raises the issue of the City Reliquery’s conflicted role in Brooklyn’s gentrification). So here’s my question to all of you: do those traditional local historical societies need a dose of the City Reliquery? Do the traditional local historical societies merely reflect more traditional local communities, or instead are they staying the same while their communities’ interests and tastes are changing?

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My own joke repertoire is pretty slim, but I did just hear about a really interesting collaboration between the Chicago History Museum and the improv comedy group The Second City. They are teaming up to create a new show about the history of Chicago. The Chicago History Museum is providing guidance and historical materials while Second City develops the show, and last month CHM hosted eight preview performances where the audience was invited to provide live feedback on the work in progress. Second City is scheduled to debut the completed show in December. A recent writeup on redeye gives this description of the preview:

Though in this construction phase the performances are different each night, but if a recent show was any indication, the comics don’t plan to hold back on much. Chicago Public Schools, aldermanic elections, Chicago police, Chicago politics, Wrigleyville, trolley tours, Schaumburg, and the bean (“It looks like a lady’s pleasure button”) all fall under the satirical scrutiny of the show….If this performance was any indication, the show will blend those kind of catnip-for-the-audience jokes with more esoteric references to Chicago’s long history.

There are two things I like about this project. First, it looks at history in a different way, always a positive in my book. Second, it makes sense from a collaboration standpoint. The Second City is a venerable Chicago institution in its own right, but it is not the traditional kind of partner for a city museum. Therefore Second City brings a lot to the table: fresh ideas, and a new audience. So look around your city: what are the beloved institutions, no matter the field, that might make interesting partners? And let me take that one step further: maybe city museums should establish residency programs, inviting specialists from a variety of different fields to spend a few months to a year creating collaborative work. I would like to see the results of such cross-pollination, comedic or otherwise. In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye out for reviews of the new Second City show at the end of the year.

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If you happened to miss, like I did, the Grand Rapids LipDub video that went viral two weeks ago, stop everything and watch it right now. The video was created through the efforts of Rob Bliss and Scott Erickson in response to Grand Rapids’ inclusion in Newsweek‘s list of America’s dying cities (based on population decline) in January. Hundreds of local residents turned out to appear in the video, lip-syncing to Don McLean’s “American Pie,” to help Bliss and Erickson prove Newsweek wrong. I won’t go into the details too much because really, you just need to watch it.

I’ve been traveling in Europe for the past few weeks, with spotty internet access, so I hadn’t heard anything about this video until it was referenced on my favorite blog two days ago. Then there I was Friday morning in a friend’s kitchen in London, reduced to weeping at the sight of all these Grand Rapids residents, from different walks of life, stepping up to make a statement about their city. Fifty or a hundred years from now, when Rob Bliss, Mayor George Hartwell, and even perhaps Newsweek itself are long gone, Grand Rapids LipDub will be a powerful historical document, a snapshot of the city during a period of significant change: the dress, the cultural life, the architecture, the people. Here’s hoping someone stays on top of migrating the video to new formats.

Addendum: Two more comments as I continue to think about Grand Rapids LipDub. First, it’s definitely boosterism, but at least it’s an organic form of boosterism, widely supported by local residents, in reaction to boosterism’s other extreme, “ruin porn.” And second, because I do see this as a form of documentary, something Grand Rapids will want to look back on years from now, I wish it had been able to show us the full picture—good and bad, ballroom dancers and local celebrities but also the city’s homeless citizens or children without health care. But of course then it wouldn’t be boosterism. I’ll take it anyway.

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The George Washington University has announced a major gift from Washingtoniana collector Albert Small. Small’s collection of rare books, maps, documents, and ephemera comes with a $5 million dollar fund that will be used to create a new museum of Washington history in the 19th-century Woodhull House on the GW campus.

In 2003 the Historical Society of Washington DC opened a new City Museum in the old Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square. Although there was considerable buzz when the museum first opened, it closed a year later due to lack of funds and poor attendance. It has since reopened with a smaller staff and a more limited range of programs and exhibitions. Local history can be complicated in Washington, where the Smithsonian museums, and the federal government in general, loom so large. The needs of tourists, as well as those of transient federal workers, often overshadow the needs of longtime locals. The new Small museum at GW seems to be a more focused project and it has the backing of a major university—hopefully it will fare better than the City Museum, and will provide some meaningful programming to help the residents of DC understand their city.

Meanwhile, I’ll take this opportunity to point out one thing I love from the DC urban history scene, something that does work for locals. It’s the Art on Call project, which restored police and fire call boxes throughout the city, and partnered with contemporary artists to fill them with interesting installations:

 

(Photos by Nick Eckert © 2009 via Cultural Tourism DC)

Each neighborhood chose its own theme for its call boxes, so they really do have a local, community feel. They often allude to nearby historic buildings, or to famous people who lived in the neighborhood. The Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood even has a call box website with images of each box and a map of the box locations. So next time you are in DC put these call boxes at the top of your must-see list. Air & Space Museum can wait.

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Today I found the ticket stub for Baarìa, a movie I saw at the Glasgow Film Theatre last summer. Baarìa is written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore of Cinema Paradiso fame (another film that should be in your Netflix Queue if you haven’t already seen it).

Simply put, Baarìa is Tornatore’s love song to his hometown of Bagheria, Sicily. History is a major character in the film: we see Bagheria change through three generations of the same family, from the 1920s to the 1980s. Without spoiling anything, there is a breathtaking moment at the end of the film where time runs together and you feel—acutely—Tornatore’s longing for the Bagheria of his memories. Baarìa is a visually stunning example of the imprint a place can make on one’s soul.

Interestingly enough, parts of Baarìa were filmed in Tunis (presumably in the Medina?), because it more closely approximates what Bagheria looked like in the early 20th century. (As an aside, you might want to check out the work of my colleague Habib Saidi at Laval University in Quebec City; he studies tourism and cultural heritage in Tunis, among other places.) Which raises another possible topic for a blog post: cities that feel like other cities—past, present, or future.

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