Evidence and Storytelling

October 26, 2017 Blog, History, Interpretation Comments (0) 170

I wrote a blog inspired by Don Rypkema’s presentation at the Living Heritage Symposium in September.  Here is one inspired by Donna Graves at the same event, who urged the audience to embrace storytelling.  This is why we save places, because of the stories they tell.

Graves prizes those places that tell multiple stories and have multiple voices.  These are the richest resources and have the potential to reach the largest audiences.

DuSable Museum of African-American History, Chicago.  Also a Daniel Burnham building.  In a Frederick Law Olmsted park.

Back in the 1980s one of my stock bus tours of Chicago was called “Ethnic Succession in Chicago Neighborhoods,” and while sounding more like a graduate seminar than a bus tour, the point was that places – buildings, neighborhoods, parks, told MULTIPLE stories, just as Donna advised.  Here was a Norwegian building that became a Puerto Rican cultural center, a synagogue that became a Baptist church, a Volkswagen dealership that became a Polish Highlander hall, and so forth.

National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture.  Building built 1896, Fromann & Jebsen

Holy Family Church (1860), a parish center for Irish-American, then Italian-American, then African-American and then Mexican-American Chicagoans.

South Side Community Arts Center.  The exterior is a great example of c.1900 mansions on South Michigan Avenue.  The interior is a rare example of “The New Bauhaus” style c. 1940.  This is the oldest continuous community arts center and the first black art museum in the United States.  Here are some of the famous people who worked here: Charles White, Archibald Motley, Jr., Gordon Parks, Margaret Burroughs.

NOVEMBER UPDATE:  It just became a National Treasure!

We preserve things because that preserves the evidence.  Many of the National Trust’s house museums were interpreted differently 50 years ago.  Back then, a graceful plantation house was the setting for a discussion of 19th century manners and furniture and likely patriotism.  Today you still get those stories, but you may also hear about the enslaved who made the place possible, because there is evidence of that story as well.  Evidence that is preserved because the place was preserved.

Woodlawn Plantation.

My friend Joseph McGill’s amazing Slave Dwelling Project travels to various historic sites, where he sleeps in slave cabins and thus performatively awakens in each place another story that may or may not have been interpreted previously.  He was recently at Montpelier and UVA, where the Project’s Fourth Annual Conference was held.

Behind the main lawn at UVA

Casa Aztlan, Pilsen, Chicago.  Originally a settlement house serving Bohemians, since 1940s serving Mexicans, now being gentrified, so these murals (shown 2010) were effaced, erasing an important element of history.

I was reminded of this when confronted with another attempt to interpret the Alamo as ONLY the battle of March 6, 1836.  Next year we celebrate the Tricentennial of San Antonio, which is dated to the founding of the Mission San Antonio de Valero in 1718.  The mission was moved to its current site in 1724, and the city has grown around it since then.

This is what the chapel looked like until a US Army engineer put on its first roof in 1849.  So this is roughly how it looked the four times it was captured by the Mexicans between 1835 and 1842.

The 1836 battle was the most significant event to happen here.  I remember visiting at age 15 and being inspired by the Alamo Defenders’ story.  I still have the postcard depicting Travis’ valiant defense and that (1953) image is etched in my memory.

This is a powerful story, not a weak one.  It can handle other stories being told by the same place.

If you focus on 1836 ALONE you are trying to erase the other three centuries of history.  Why?

Don’t you want to understand what it was for its first century?  And how it got its name at the beginning of the 19th century?  And how the chapel got its distinctive campanulate roofline in 1849?  And how it got saved in 1883, and again twenty years later?  And how a city grew up around it?  Wouldn’t you rather have more stories to tell?

More stories means more history communicated more times to more people.  You want MORE, not LESS.

That is why many house museums suffer.   Many house museums present a carefully crafted but ultimately singular story.  This means you only have to visit once in your life, because you know the one story.

Did someone move that fork again?  Call the curator!

Clever house museums have a variety of programming that insures people keep coming back, because another story is being told.  My friend the artist Rebecca Keller has brought her classes to historic house museums for many years to install fascinating exhibits that relate unknown, unusual or hidden stories in these buildings.  One of her first projects highlighted the servants at Chicago’s Glessner House, whose historic role was hidden by both architecture and interpretation.  Various artists use various media following a research phase where they gather EVIDENCE.

Pleasant Home, Oak Park, in 2008.

We preserve landmarks because they tell stories – about people, about events, about architectural design, about society as it is and as it was.  The reason we save the original artifact rather than just documenting it is because it is EVIDENCE.  Evidence of all the many stories embodied in that place, both those we know and those we will discover in the future.

If you walk in the door of this 1930s Post Office north of the Alamo, you will find wonderful murals painted in 1939 that include my hero Travis.  Which is appropriate, because this is where he fell.

 

 

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