November 14, 2005
Leah respond to the LESTM
Museums that showcase historical sites, or sites that are significant because they reflect the material realities of an earlier time (and a specific place) usually seek to have their visitors consider and explore what daily life was like in that particular place and time; there are a variety of possible purposes that might underlie this purpose. The curatorial and pedagogical choices made in the design and programming of a museum indicate how the governing stakeholders and staff of the museum have determined a course for presenting and performing the information and interpretation that they wish to offer in order for their visitors to be able to accomplish this exploration.
With the Confino Family Apartment tour, a “living history” experience (so described on the Web site,) the LESTM is implementing a particular pedagogical strategy that incorporates a number of different features and emphases. They include: immersing visitors in a multi-sensory reconstruction of the earlier time period, asking the visitor to imagine themselves as actors within the historical context of the reconstruction and interacting with the historical character who serves both as performer and mediator of the experience. Our post-experience discussion at Katz’s focused on how “successful” we found the experience to be; we might also ask whether this was the best pedagogical choice for “educating” us in the way that was intended and what might have been done to more successfully perform the mode of education that we experienced.
How else could one or have created a Tenement Museum? How might these choices be affected by the specific mission of the institution? The Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s mission is “to promote tolerance and historical perspective through the presentation and interpretation of the variety of immigrant and migrant experiences on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gateway to America.” This mission might be what drives the museum to focus its interpretive emphasis on the human experience of daily life in the apartment. What other curatorial or pedagogical choices might the museum staff have made in order to implement this mission? What would the exhibition and educational programming look like if different choices had been made? For example, the Museum’s humanitarian mission might also have led to an exhibition design which emphasized the architectural and social service regulations at different time periods during the building’s usage and how these regulations responded to and set course for what were considered basic human rights and needs in each era, as well as how legal regulations evolved in response to evolving understandings of what was due to all citizens and what was considered basic necessity in terms of ensuring the health and welfare of the population in the tenements and at large.
In light of this conceptualization it is interesting to consider the other historic site examples that we read about for this week. Ellis Island, by contrast to the Tenement Museum, is a site that does not utilize the “animation” or “interpretation” of live actors. Instead, the Ellis Island site capitalizes upon the notion that it is a representative portal of entry into America. In theory everyone could imagine, as Lee Iacocca is described as doing, their ancestors standing there as they first entered the country. It seems to me that Ellis Island is able to utilize this strategy because it served as a portal, a gateway and first temporary spot for immigrants. It was a place where few immigrants stayed for any length of time (the main exception being those who were deemed to ill to enter the country proper.) Therefore, the exact historical accuracy of the building is less important to the experience than the evocation of the heavy symbolism of emerging through a “gateway.” By coming to Ellis Island, identifying with the experience, and then returning to mainland, visitors re-enact this experience for themselves. In order to maximize this identification, it is more effective for Ellis Island to remain empty of interpreters, for the visitors themselves are meant to be animators.
In Colonial Williamsburg the presentation of “living history” is far more elaborate than at the Tenement Museum, including a much larger and complex “site” as its terrain and the possibility of interpretation via the interaction between animators, a mode only briefly present in Victoria’s opening discussion with the settlement house worker. (Not coincidentally, Colonial Williamsburg also represents a slice of life in an older America that was decidedly more privileged than life on the Lower East Side.) Actors serving as interpreters are in and of themselves a mode of “artifact,” embodying certain historical facts and understandings, while at the same time they are bound by the “imagined reality” presented by the institution. These two premises of the work engender a tension for the animators, who must respond to the unexpected happening that arise in engaging with real, live visitors and rely on their own improvisational skills while maintaining a fidelity to the mission of the museum. In The New History in an Old Museum these this tension surfaced in two different sections. In the chapter “Why History Changes,” “Interpreters told us in private that they were free, even encouraged, to create their own tours, within certain limits.” (p. 51) The authors present two theories of why history changes, one called “constructivist” and one “realist.” To my mind there is a “reality” which supersedes both: history is constructed or made in the real or actual experiences that visitors experience and these are mediated by the interpreters themselves. Hence the choices made by interpreters, sometimes in the moment, actually create the history (or its interpretation) that visitors take away with them. Sandra’s comment about the experience with Victoria will set her imagined image of what tenement life was like reflects this reality to me. As an aside, I was intrigued to read in this chapter that the evolution of the “living history” pedagogy at the site evolved in part in reaction to comments from visitors. As researchers we might ask, about any museum, how interpretive choices are different when they are made in response to audience feedback as well as or instead of in response to staff planning and design. On the level of interpretation, it means that visitors are in turn helping to shape the experience for future visitors and hence collaborating on modes of interpretation. The complexity of the work of interpreters is also evident in the discussion “The Front Line.” Interpreters serve as the first interface between visitors and the site and so their conduct – and the way that visitors react – is not merely a matter of education but also one of commerce, since visitors are also paying customers. Visitors’ experience of the site as a “total environment” is dependent upon the abilities of the interpreters, even in off moments, to maintain the illusion of a “living” environment. Handler and Gable note “In the training sessions we attended, the trainers were erstwhile interpreters who had risen to become part-time managers. Their job was Herculean. They had to supply a group of relatively well educated and enthusiastic amateurs with enough knowledge of the history of Williamsburg in the colonial era, the history of the reconstruction of the site, and the nuts and bolts of crowd control so that the neophytes would be able to lead tours without supervision within four weeks in three different buildings.” (p. 196.) The authors note the limitations of the training in enabling interpreters to present “complex historiographical narratives.” (p. 207) I wonder how a successful training program might prepare for this and as well allow for the understanding that what will be generally considered complex or critical will change and evolve over time.
History is always interpreted from the perspective of our own day, time and place. Hence while “It is always 1627 in the virtual world” of Plimoth Plantation (BKG, p. 194) it is always as seen and understood by visitors on any given day, even though visitors are conscripted to be complicit in the constant creation of the “virtual world.” I found that a particularly amusing iteration of this was the dispute that BKG had over the reproduction of the “Plimoth Plantation” photographs for the volume Destination Culture. The photograph she wished to reproduce was “wrong” even though it is a representation of what the site looked like at the time that the photo was taken. Perhaps another place where one might think about the efficacy of a particular educational strategy is to consider what happens at the moment of exit, when visitors leave the experience and the site and return to their regular life. How does the museum know what sense we made of the experience? I “visited” with Victoria twice and so missed the discussion with the educator, so I cannot comment on what was discussed but I wonder what it would have been like if she had continued to play, at least for part of the time, the role of “settlement house worker” and encouraged us to speak with her in our own roles as new immigrants. By extending the frame into a second activity the LESTM might be able to deepen the possibilities of this pedagogy. [Note: In the Educators’ section on-line, the Museum offers a complimentary activity to this apartment experience which consists of a more in-depth study of a variety of documentary materials, including the family photo and the postcard picture of Kastoria that Victoria showed us.]
All of these museums tell stories that are distinctly American. Each, in its own way, invites visitors to locate themselves in the American narrative that is embedded in the particular site and as well in the larger historical mythology of the country.
Posted by BKG at 1:49 PM
The Ellis Island and Plimoth Plantation institutions are two consecrated sites where heritage and history are performed. Both performances are ideological charged. In both cases, the masternarratives they construct about “our forefathers,” compete to be the definitive one. On the one hand, this can be read as a democratizing inclusiveness, on the other, it obscures historical inequalities. Many Americans are left out of both masternarratives, in particular, slavery is left out of the celebratory story of “our” nation.
BKG explains, “memory is not reclaimed, it is produced. The attribution of authorship to those who subscribe to the Immigrant Wall of Honor obscures the hands that really control what will be remembered and how, for ultimately the intermittently visible producers of the restoration are the authors of institutionalized memory” (Ellis Island 187).
In contrast, as Handler and Gable explain, since the 1970s, Colonial Williamsburg attempts to implement the “new social history.” The perspective of Colonial Williamsburg’s proponents of social history is that the entrenched version of American history “ignored the works and lives of the vast majority of the American population. Moreover, it was too exclusively celebratory. It privileged national consensus and ignored social conflict, thereby cleansing American history of oppression, exploitation, injustice, and struggle…” and that “historical truths are socially produced by particular people with particular interests and biases. The truths embodied in historical stories are thus not absolute or universal, but relative to the cultural context in which they are made” (4).
Like BKG’s analysis of Plymouth Plantation and Ellis Island, Handler and Gable point out that the entrenched Williamsburg story reaffirmed the status quo. In studying the ways in which an institution attempting to correct these problems works, their book’s ambition was to study the museum ethnographically as an institution in which meanings are socially produced through interactions of different types of actors with different types of interests, who must negotiate different types of external pressures –corporate funding, the public’s demand for education or entertainment.
This perspective also harmonizes with BKG’s contention that “[h]eritage is a new mode of cultural production in the present that has recourse to the past” (Destination Muesum 149). “Heritage not only gives buildings, precincts, and ways of life that are no longer viable a second life as an exhibit of themselves, it also produces something new” (Ibid 150).
How can we read the LETM in relation to these ideas? In contrast to the masternarratives of American heritage that subsume difference in to a homogeneous nationalistic story, this story is incredible specific. The Confino family did not live in a situation where they can index the ethnic identity of their group / neighborhood. They were a minority group among their neighbors. They cannot be linked to a particular nation, since the borders of their nation were shifting, their ethnicity is extremely particular –Sephardic, from the border of Greece and the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, their story is one to which many immigrants could (and can) relate. So this family was an interesting choice on the part of the institution, into whose workings we caught a mediated glimpse in our group sessions with a guide who gave us a frame and explained to use the institutional workings of the museums, before and after the historical interpretation.
Instead of monumentalizing stories of success, this story humanized the totalizing idea of immigrants living in squalor. It didn’t gloss over the hardships of this immigrant experience, I think it did a reasonably good job of showing the difficult conditions in which many immigrants did live at this time. I thought the “interpreter” did a phenomenal job in interacting with us, causing us to feel like disoriented immigrants gleaning information from her, and causing us to learn facts indirectly, without ever breaking character. The experience of being in this apartment communicated more to me than thousands of pages of academic work on the subject would have, and much more quickly. I think BKG’s take on Plymouth plantation as “virtual reality” (194) is a particularly apt way to describe this experience. “It is partial, negotiable, polyvocal. More like hypermedia than a play, the site is truly interactive” (ibid). Like a virtual reality scenario, not all the objects in the space were programmed; just some of them were interactive. This experience must be particularly magical for children who are in general more able to suspend their disbelief when viewing performances than a bunch of “human magpies” like ourselves (Handler and Gable 48).
Posted by Pilar Rau at 10:19 AM
Playing Along on the Lower East Side
While sitting and listening to “Victoria Confino” talk about her home and family, I couldn’t help but wonder if the “actual” Victoria would ever have imagined that her life experiences would be re-presented for tourists at the turn of the 21st century (by eight different Victorias, no less). The Confino life is creatively re-interpreted, placed in the present, and made meaningful according to particular frameworks. Yet commemorating the past entails a romanticizing process through which something (the negative? the violent and visceral? the boring and dirty?) is necessarily eviscerated. Therefore, despite the drive towards total authenticity and historical accuracy, sites like the Tenement Museum, Ellis Island, and Colonial Williamsburg are best understood as recreations that seem to innovate (rather than renovate) a particular historical moment. Like heritage-making, history-making is a partial yet extremely productive process occurring squarely in the present socio-political-cultural moment. Most of my response compares Colonial Williamsburg (CW) to the Tenement museum experience (TM). (I read half the text before going on the tour and the last half upon returning home. The second half read much differently! Field trips make great fieldwork.)
Handler and Gable’s inquiry into the relationship between social history and museum life was, as they state, spontaneously structured by their experiences at colonial Williamsburg. That is, their areas of concentration were “decided in part by serendipitous factors that lead us in some directions rather than others” (23). This helped me to think through my own research – when overwhelmed with data, it seems best to let certain parts of the site “speak” to you, and follow those extensively, rather than placing a restrictive methodological framework onto the site. Their text also brought us back to some issues this class began with: authenticity, ethnography, and mass tourism, but looked at these issues through the lens of American history.
First, “the authentic” returns with a vengeance. Both our educator at the TM and the persons at CW expressed a compulsive desire with detail. Our educator (I can’t recall her name!) noted that she had been trained as a “back-up” Victoria and said that she had been extremely nervous when she had to fill in, especially about the accuracy of her accent. There seems to be a general fear of “getting the past wrong” for fear of undermining the authority of the pedagogical project, especially as reported by Handler and Gable. Yet, as they note, this emphasis on historically documented fact obscures the reality of the situation: extreme attention to detail cannot conjure the past in its entirety. CW and the TM are performances, enacted in the present context. It’s interesting to imagine what actually gets remembered by those who lived in the tenements – how can the memories of odors, smells, and bodies and the first-generation experiences of heart-wrenching fear and uncertainty be recreated at sites like these? How does an institution educate the public about the more raw and visceral aspects of past forms of living?
Second, a focus on “just the facts” disallows the presentation of a critical social history. This brings up other questions about the limits of historical sites: can sites that are viewed as formative landscapes of American culture be critical of America? At the same time that they are consolidating nationhood, CW, Ellis Island, and the TM are pressed by scholars and historians to incorporate less prideful memories of our nation’s past. In tying the Confino apartment experience to issues around contemporary immigration law, the TM seems more explicitly situation in this social history vein than a site like CW – especially if social history is, as quoted in Handler and Gable, the “history of society” and teaching social entails teaching how “two immigrant cultures… became indigenous cultures, separate and highly unequal to be sure, but both decidedly American” (67). Even if the past is somewhat romanticized, the TM performs a progressive political stance when trying to create discussions about contemporary social issues. Discussions about social history helped me think through the relationship between nation and site that is being constructed at ground zero. The soundwalk tour at ground zero ends with a bit of social history: the story of New York city is the story of how people from around the nation and world some to a single place and learn how to live with one another. The tour seems most interested in lifting up the voices of society and the stories of people living and working near the site – very little explicit patriotic messages or talk of American pride. (Maybe the actual ground zero memorial will focus more on these aspects).
Lastly, some thoughts on the tour itself. My partner Jonathan (who, I think against his expectations, suddenly became the default father of 12 girls) wondered what the point was of role-playing in a pedagogical setting. Isn’t historical information best read, learned, or listened to? As BKG notes in her discussion on Plimoth, the visitor “is never told what questions to ask or given definitive answers. Learning is all process and discovery” (194). Jonathan is an elementary school teacher – he thought the tour would have been much more effective for young children who more easily slip into playful and inquisitive modes. We, on the other hand, were reluctant to “play along.” Our questions were more structurally-oriented, and were saved for the educator. It would have been interesting to sit in on different tour groups while they played along with Victoria to better understand the effectiveness and results of this type of tourist interaction. In any case, the tour demonstrated that desire, suspension of belief, and a willingness to play, engage, and interact are all integral aspects of the tourism.
Posted by Brynn Noelle Saito at 9:10 AM
We discussed so much at the restaurant that I am not sure what to talk about in my response. But, here goes…
The first thing that strikes me about the Tenement Museum, but also about Colonial Williamsburg and Plimouth Plantation is the tremendous emphasis on education.
Handler and Gable certainly discuss the tension museums and historical sites are experiencing between entertainment and education (171, 205), especially once the tourism industry and its corporate for-profit structure is in the mix. However, it seems that the tension lies less in education vs. entertainment, and more in education vs. experience. Certainly one can learn more about historic sites through other media, or even through other museum practices that do not involve costumes and first person interpretation (labels, audiovisual material, interactive technologies, etc.), but the choice of making history come to life might be less about pedagogy and more about affect. Earlier today, my sense was not that anything informational had been revealed to me, but rather that I had been immersed in an entirely different time/space, allowing me to somehow “feel” history, to interact with it, to sense the smells and touch of history. This is not to say that experience cannot be pegadogical, but I think that we have to rethink the frame, reimagine what education means and how it can be induced. The tenement museum’s Victoria apartment is not about learning “just the facts,” in fact, facts were, as Brigitte complained, on the slim side. It was about suspending disbelief and participating in a unique experience, so unique that our two groups managed within tours that were merely minutes apart, to experience it differently. In its encyclopedia and training manuals, the museum speaks of historical interpreters, of educators, of different approaches to learning, but it seems that what they are providing, what they are achieving, is neither within the realm of education, nor a Disneyland theme park attraction. They are allowing their audience to “feel” what it might have been like, or at least have a vivid picture, to be an early twentieth century immigrant in New York. In many ways, this echoes BKG’s argument regarding the three clocks that are activated simultaneously at Plimouth Plantation: the stopped clock of the historical moment, the heritage clock and the clock the visitors bring to the site (197-199). This strategy is entirely opposite to that of Ellis Island where we are narrated a history that is placed in the past, alien to the viewer, something to be learned, consumed, not felt. The “mimetic realism”approach, as Handler and Gable baptized it (70), does bring history to life, it animates it, but not unproblematically. Certainly, these enactments are not seemless: our very presence in them brakes the frame, as does the warning regarding the exit sign and the fan in the Tenement museum or the Colonial Williamsburg staff’s “excessive honesty,” but that does not mean that seams are necessarily enough. Indeed, the living history approach can lead to extremes. Some visitors might be completely resistant to suspending disbelief, but more dangerously, others might come out of the apartment feeling like they have in fact experienced “the real thing.” In the case of Plimouth, of Colonial Williamsburg and of the Tenement Museum, this might not be overall problematic, but it might have unforeseen consequences in museums that display more controversial histories (a museum on genocide, for example).
The second issue that I would like to discuss, one that is close to my heart, regards methodology. How can one of these sites be studied? Handler and Gable are perhaps the most ambitious and clear regarding their own limitations in embarking on a project to produce an ethnography about a heritage site of the dimensions of Colonial Williamsburg. They seem to have chosen the staff of the production as their key informants, interviewing members of the management, front-line staff, and other employees, in addition to the many participant observation experiences of the tours themselves. However, audiences only figure marginally in their study, and one gets little or no sense of how the site is actually felt and interpreted, beyond the production itself and what they call its “unintended consequences”(198-9). If anything, our exercise at the restaurant after the tour, showed us how the individuals in one group, a group with similar educational backgrounds, ages, interests, etc., managed to interpret and sense the experience so diametrically differently. Is there a way to look at a site like the Tenement Museum ethnographically? If so, who would be the informants? What would participant observation entail? Something tells me Scott might have some answers on this one.
Posted by Sandra Rozental at 8:50 AM
I would have loved to participate in the Tenement museum tour if I felt well enough. I particularly wanted to because when I visited Victoria Confino’s apartment, it was with my 8-year-old daughter’s class and so I wanted to observe how different my experience would likely be. Perhaps I should write a little about it, maybe it will be an interesting perspective.
Her class spent months studying immigration history, stepping in the shoes of immigrants by writing notes about what they would like to take with them to America, what they would miss, why they had to leave to find a better life, writing pretend letters to family back home from the ship, how dreadful and crowded it was, how the food stank, how ill they felt, and finally the dreaded Ellis Island inspection and what they experienced. So by the time her class visited the Confino’s they had made the journey in their minds and imagination over several weeks – they had gotten past rude medical examiners who peered into their eyes with hooklike instruments, peered down their throats, and in some cases marked their coats with a big letter like’E’ which meant their eyes didn’t look good, so the immigrant would inconspicuously turn the coat inside out to get past – many little details.. So the class was very excited to see these little apartments they would have to live in with perhaps ten other people, where the girls would have to stitch or make flower garlands etc..to make a living.
Questions to Victoria were about how many people lived in those three little rooms, where did she sleep, how much did the stove cost, how much did the flour cost, how much did they earn, could she show us how she washed the clothes, where was the family, what were they doing, what did they eat and how did she cook it, where did she dry the clothes, where was the bathroom, was life hard…..How hard life was, how hard it was for the immigrants – smelly dark little apartments, diseases, not enough food and money…..this is what I came away with from my daughter’s class experience. They seemed to really relate to the bodily and stressful experiences of the immigrants. The class knew a lot in terms of dates and the variety of countries they could’ve come from, the foreign languages - the kids certainly felt fortunate to be here in this time and age. In their study and research they were not exposed in any way to the plight of immigrants today. So in this case at least for the children, unlike Colonial Williamsburg it’s almost the reverse celebratory– look how good life is now.
It is a fine balance between celebratory and critical perspective – while “good vibes” as Handler and Gable articulate is seen to be quite crucial to the Colonial Williamsburg museum, the Tenement museum although held dark truths for my daughter’s class to ‘see’ and inspect, the playful experience of meeting Victoria a ‘real’ person, details like the emphasis on the hallway walls as being the absolute exact same as it was in 1916 was all very exciting, and these contextualizations emphasized by the tour guide I thought lent to a ‘good vibes’ exciting feel. Setting an atmosphere, preparing audiences for an ‘experience’ that is special and different seems to always run in the meta narrative of a festival or a museum, and just how much is the audience’s existing knowledge challenged, advanced or educated by these affective productions is a good question to raise. I also found it interesting to read H & G that mimetic realism destroys the utility of history as a vehicle of social criticism – how far does the Tenement museum succeed in their creative use of history as a tool for civic engagement? For as BKG says in her article that “ultimately the intermittently visible producers of the restoration are the authors of the institutionalized memory.” (187)
For my own project the notion of the meta narrative both in BKG’s book and H & G is important. What are the participants, the entrepreneurs at the Hornbill festival expected to bring with them, and what do festival-goers take home? Much as I want to examine the “items” on display at the festival, particularly in terms of music, how does the meta-narrative play into the performances that create meaning and identity.
Posted by Senti Toy at 8:28 AM
The seamy side of the past
In The New history in an Old Museum, Handler and Gable at the beginning of the book remind us that, besides the glamorous, the infamous and the undesible also coexist in American history. The tendency of averting the seamy side of the past prevents us from adopting a balanced view of the past. The movement of reconsidering the truthfulness of the representation done by the Colonial Williamsburg leads to the revision of this particular part of American history. The curators re-adjust the selection of historical facts presented to the visitors. At the same time, visitors are encouraged to read historical facts and the narrative of history more critically.
There must be some "road apples" on the street as well as in history. Like Colonial Williamsburg, Lower East Side Tenement Museum strives to present the struggles of the immigrants in a tangible way. The tour to Victoria's place, an on-location tour, was pretty interesting to me. Personally, I like the idea of assigning a costumed interpreter, Victoria, to the visiting group and let visitors interact with Victoria in their own ways under certain guide-lines given by museum. In this role-playing process, Victoria gave us a general idea of immigrants' daily life and some historical facts that, I believe, the curators of the museum want visitors to know. Though interesting and inspiring, I also find such interacting model risky in certain ways for the success of such model is contingent to both Victoria's control over the situations and the visitors cooperation. In the tour, I couldn't help but thinking about the violations that could occur among visitors. Whether intentionally, unintentionally, out of malice or out of ignorance, such violations could ruin the tour, or even the museum itself--the tenement apartment that open to visitors.
As Yochi mentioned in Katz's as well as in her post, there is inconsistency, or variations, in Victoria's narrative. The information given by her somewhat varies when she was with two different groups. With the second group, Victoria mentioned Asian imagrants and other details not revealed when she was with the first group. I am wondering if this is the adjustment consciously made by Victoria, or such things occur randomly. If the latter is the case, I would say that it is problamtic, for the control of the quality of information, as well as other material aspects of the tour, should be enforced carefully.
After the visit, the educator (I cannot recall her long title correctly) gathered the first group and explained the process of the traings of Victorias, the costumed interpreters interacting with visitors. She told us that all Victorias have gone through a training in general history of immigrants and acquired the knowledge of socioeconomic conditions of the society in the old days. Also, Victorias are actors, who have experience in theatre or other types of performances that require acting skills. The purpose of a set of trainings is to prepare Victoria to all sorts of questions posing by visitors of different ages, educational backgrounds, cultural/ethnic origins.
One of the facts indicated by the educator of the museum which I found interesting is that the ESL students tend to identify with Victorias and end up sharing their own experience of learning English in contemporary days. Anachronism therefore occurs under these circumstances. This fact mentioned by the educator links back to the question I ask in previous paragraph--How do Victorias react to violations in general, and to the anachronic elements intruding in this chronologically designed, carved out space? I enjoyed the tour and appreciated the layout of the museum. However, after the tour, I have a whim of playing the role of the not-so-cooperative visitors and see how the Victoria leading the tour responses to me.
Posted by Stella Yu-Wen Wang at 7:41 AM
The Customer is Always Right Especially when They Question the Dominant Paradigm (but don't look at me for help, my supervisor's watching)
Today’s visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, as well as the readings for this week, raised some interesting questions for me in terms of my project on Pier 21 (“Canada’s Ellis Island”). First of all, Handler and Gable’s ambitious ethnography of Colonial Williamsburg echoes in many ways the methodologies that we have been kind of setting up all semester for examining tourist sites. From MacCannell’s notion of front and back spaces, to Bruner’s notion that the ‘encounter’ itself is productive, these same or similar tactics are employed by Handler and Gable to get away from what they understand to be the more conventional museological approach of examining the content of the exhibits. In an attempt to get a fuller picture of the way meanings are produced, this is necessary but ambitious in a museum as complex and unwieldy as Colonial Williamsburg.
Fortunately, I was never planning to do a simple content analysis of the Pier 21 museum, and it is likely that this is because of the ideas I had encountered in this class (from MacCannell, Bruner, et al...) prior to conducting my initial fieldwork there. However, since the Williamsburg text deals specifically with something that considers itself to be a museum, participates in what one might call “public history”, and is implicated in issues of nationalism and nation-building, some of its insights might be especially useful to me.
Just to be clear, “Public History” is not the same as “Social History” in the way that Handler and Gable use the latter term. While they both connote public education and to an extent, public responsibility, Social History as used by Handler and Gable refers to a specific, radical move towards an critical engagement with history and historical materials. They found that the model of history-as-progress-as-ongoing-accumulation-of-facts conflicted and competed with the ‘ideal’ mode of social history, as did the “good vibes” doctrine that seemed to pervade managerial/interpreter relations. How can a tourist attraction that is an ‘educational institution’ as well as a business challenge people’s preconceptions, ask uncomfortable questions, and maintain the “customer is always right” attitude?
This is a question that is also applicable the Tenement Museum, to an extent, and involves, in both cases, the question of interpretation (or as they say in French, animation). After looking through the LES tenement museum encyclopedia, I get a real idea of just how much information the educators and interpreters are required to know. But the interpreter does more than give us facts, especially when they are playing a character. If we imagine that the LESTM interpreters are supposed to be guiding us through a critical social history (and I do get that impression somewhat when reading the educator’s manual), what is the line between fact and criticism? Is it possible to provide, intimate, or imply a critical approach to the facts while in character? I think it might be useful to look to Brecht for some of these “technique” questions. I also think he might be useful for looking at the issue of comfort and discomfort (because you can’t have alienation without identification) but it is not within the scope of this 3:30 AM class response. But it is intriguing to think about what a Brechtian public history museum would look like, and to what extent the LESTM’s mandates might already overlap with such a project.
Something I would like to try to add to my materials if possible, in the light of both the Williamsburg text and also the LESTM experience and readings, would be the training manual that I know is given to volunteers and employees who act as guides in the museum, to give me a sense of what kind of history the museum teaches its teachers to teach. Technique, it seems, is of utmost importance, especially as it illustrates the relationship between an institution, its mandate, and the educators, interpreters, animators, and guides who are charged with carrying it out.
Posted by Sarah Klein at 3:47 AM
As much as I enjoyed the playful experience at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum today…
(and here I have to think about my husband and our (at least) eight beautiful daughters (including BKG!) and of course my favorite son, Moisele, not to mention our Sephardic orphan from Istanbul),anyway, as I started to recollect my thoughts later tonight, I have become more critical of the experience. Perhaps it was our conversation after the tour that had an influence on my opinion, although I do not think so. I think it primarily comes from the frustration that I felt as I was trying to juxtapose this experience with the historic sites Handler and Gable, and BKG analyze in the reading assignments for today. In the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum experience, as well as in the three analyses I looked for tools and approaches that I could apply in my own research.
My research site is similar to the examined historic sites in the sense that it also focuses on a very important historical period of a nation’s history. Despite the fact that the Statue Park in Budapest is a collection of lifeless statues from the Communist Era, which is why it is often entitled as the “statue-cemetery”; I do believe that the aim of these sites are the same: “to make the past come alive” (Handler and Gable: 71) or create a “living history” (Handler and Gable: 74). What is common in all these sites is that all they have is a number of inanimate, defunct objects. Whether they are former immigration offices (Ellis Island), colonial buildings (Colonial Williamsburg), a rock (Plimoth Plantation), or a bunch of Communist statues (Statue Park, Budapest), the question is the same: how to organize a world around these objects, or, more precisely, how to organize the world of these objects, so that in their “recourse to the past” (BKG: 149) speaks to the present as well.
Handler and Gable points out that “the colonial buildings by themselves are lifeless, an empty shell or stage setting that must be animated by living people or by stories that suggest them.” (71) The realization of the three American sites suggests that objects can only come to ‘life’ through the animation of ‘living’ people. “A visit with these character interpreters provides the opportunity to learn about the past from the personal viewpoints of the people who lived it. It is a way for the visitor to talk with the past.” (75) – claims Handler and Gable, while Tilden points out that the animated site or exhibition provides “the chance to place oneself in another world, three-dimensionally exhibited, and to try out that other world, as it were” (quoted by Handler and Gable: 175).
My question is whether we agree with the above-mentioned authors. Did we really talk with the past? Did Victoria, or our conversation with her, bring the defunct apartment into life? Here, I need a moment of detour. I have to admit that I needed to double check myself and look up the word ‘defunct’ in the dictionary. According to the English Synonym Dictionary, I could have used the word ‘spiritless’ instead of ‘defunct’ to describe the apartment we saw today. Looking up this word has helped me to conceive my main problem with this type of interactive experience. There is a presupposition that the site, without its animator, is spiritless. Was the apartment ‘spiritless’ indeed? Did the presence of Victoria help us to feel the spirit of the place? I am afraid that in reality we experienced a very different spirit from what we may have experienced without this role-play, by just being there, perceiving and experiencing the space.
Why do not the managements of historical sites trust the objects? Why do they think that because they are lifeless, they are spiritless as well? Why don’t they trust that the objects would speak to us without the mediation of the animators? (Think about the Rock in Plimoth. BKG quotes Elaine Scarry who sees ‘object’ as a “projection of the human body”, and as such, it “deprives the external world of the privilege of being inanimate” (192). I have never been to Plimoth, but as I was reading the article I imagined the Rock as an old, stoop-shouldered, wise pilgrim, who sits on a hill looking down on a place that constantly changes below him.)
The question is what those objects tell us. Since they speak differently to everyone, the management of the historical site needs to generate a common social/historical reading. “A well-managed historic site must have ‘objectives’, they say – a tale to tell, a message to teach – and those objectives should be fixed from above, by the directors and managers of the sites.” - quotes Handler and Gabler Anderson and Low (176). I find this “message”, “objective”, or “mission” (45) extremely important, since this is what plays a crucial role in the formation of national and/or cultural identity. What is it that we take home with us after all? What is it that shifts/changes/contests our worldview and relation to the past?
In my own research, I have a very difficult time to formulate what the objective of the Statue Park is. Somehow I cannot hear what those suggestive statues say. This might be a good example that without a transparent intention “from above”, the process of an individual interpretation might be very challenging. As a theatre dramaturg, I first approached the site as a performance, applying Pavis’ analysis and conceptualizing a dramaturgical reading. However, I still have a problem with the interpretation. BKG’s “rhetorical approach”, formulating sites as literary/rhetorical tropes, such as a metonym or a synecdoche, offers a very useful methodology to me. Finding and defining the metonymical denotations of the statues and the park will help me to conceptualize the managers’ objectives in establishing this historic site.
In the case of the Colonial Williamsburg and Ellis Island, the management’s objective is clear: to underpin the dominant American identity of contemporary society. In this “American-dream discourse” immigrants come to this country because this is the place where every one can make his/her dream come true. It is a good and rightful land, where injustice turns into justice, where slave masters know that what they do is wrong and eventually liberate their slaves. Colonial Williamsburg and Ellis Island both tell stories of the past, and I do not have the right to doubt them. They might as well be true; however, selecting and exposing these narratives exclusively can be very dangerous. These sites may feed an intolerant, blind and self-conscious national identity instead of contesting it.
Since this topic relates to my research, I had a lot to say. However, I did not have time to address three more questions:
- Victoria: hostess/interpreter/mediator/animator?
- On page 112, Handler and Gable describe a presentation at the Wythe House, where the interpreters “singled out “you ladies” and told them they would be joining Mrs. Wythe, who is having tea with her friends”. This made me wonder, what if there were some African American tourists among the visitors. How would the interpreter call upon them? Where should they go? I find this extremely problematic.
- Shaping of collective memory - Why is it important? For those of us, who are in the Phenomenology class: how does Bergson’s concept of “virtual memory” highlight these analyses of sites? (If it does so at all.)
Posted by Aniko Szucs at 3:28 AM
It Takes A (Fully Reconstructed, Costume-Interpreted) Village
Due to another commitment, I was, alas and alack, unable to attend the Tenement Museum outing with the class (though I do intend to go on my own as soon as I get the time!). Thus, instead of drawing upon that experience for this response, and comparing it to the readings for the week, I will draw upon my experiences of fieldwork and interview at Old Bethpage Village Restoration. You’ll forgive me, however, if I leave out some interesting and tantalizing details for the sake of not spoiling the fun of my final paper/presentation.
Due to another commitment, I was, alas and alack, unable to attend the Tenement Museum outing with the class (though I do intend to go on my own as soon as I get the time!). Thus, instead of drawing upon that experience for this response, and comparing it to the readings for the week, I will draw upon my experiences of fieldwork and interview at Old Bethpage Village Restoration. You’ll forgive me, however, if I leave out some interesting and tantalizing details for the sake of not spoiling the fun of my final paper/presentation.
To begin with, I very much wish I had read Handler and Gable’s text before going to Old Bethpage to do my field work, and a part of me hopes I can find the time to return there. I was a great deal more timid in my research than they were. For my research I stuck to two visits, one where I conducted pre-arranged interviews with the site manager, lead historian, and an experienced, costumed interpreter, and another where I attended, as a paying customer, Old Bethpage’s Halloween celebration. However, on the latter trip, my observations were kept to merely the notes that I wrote down and the photographs that I took. I was too meek, embarrassed, and/or lacking in confidence to actually approach other visitors, other audience members, and ask them what they thought about the experience. However, in creating a full ethnography of a site – which, although it is not quite what I’m doing, is rather close in terms of research methods, if not in ultimate analysis and conclusions – it does, indeed, seem rather crucial to be able to represent the experience of visitors/outsiders other than just oneself.
Yet, interestingly, this did not seem to be BKG’s method in the essays on Ellis Island and Plimoth Plantation. In these writings, she gathers her information and turns her formidable analytical gaze towards the sites. The crucial difference here, though, is between a “study” and a “case study.” Whereas Handler & Gable are doing a study of Colonial Williamsburg – a full-on, all-out look at as many aspects of the place as they can cram into one book – BKG is providing case studies – two sites that she looks at in order to put into practice her thoughts on heritage.
Speaking of heritage (or typing of heritage, I suppose), and taking a bit of a different path in the conversation, I find it very interesting that in these three (or, rather, four, counting either Old Bethpage or the Tenement Museum) examinations of tourist productions of heritage and history, all of them choose to re-create that history for visitors through the use of theatre. Now, a part of me wonders if that is simply a part of the pedagogical organization of this week’s reading and site research, but I also wonder if there is something about history that requires a bit of theatricality in order to make it “presentable.” Even such “non-theatrical” museums, like the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., utilize moments of object-based theatricality, such as the mountain of shoes at that particular museum. Is it really all that much of a step to actually have costumed interpreters rather than business-casual docents?
However, the issue of “presentability” here takes center stage (pun definitely intended). For instance, a middle-class, church-going villager out of 18th century Long Island? Presentable. A Holocaust death-camp survivor, in full uniform? Not presentable. Many would claim this is simply a matter of taste, but perhaps it could also be considered a matter of being unwilling to face up to the low, dark moments of our history. The shining example of this, of course, is the slave auction enacted at Colonial Williamsburg, as recounted in BKG’s chapter on heritage from last week. Why is it considered all right to read about slave auctions, or the Holocaust, and to see exhibits on them, but not to see a costumed interpretation/ re-enactment of these personages and events? And, if it’s not all right to see these moments of oppression, then why is it all right to see the daily lives of the oppressors? At Old Bethpage, for example, all of the major households are the preserved homes of wealthy Long Island citizens, so it is only their stories which are told, not the stories of the poor, scrabbling, hard-working Long Islanders who lived down the block in huts and hovels.
Granted, as I write this, I realize that the Tenement Museum may well do just this, representing an oppressed group through costumed interpretation, so forgive my ignorance if that is so.
To conclude this response, I would like to pose a question that has been nagging at me for awhile now. I began my interest in touristic environmental theatre (holla’ back, Scott!) with Disney World, wherein the theatrical experiences is meant to entertain, and fully immerse the guest in a vacation getaway of fun, magic, and enjoyment. Although highly commercialized and commodified, these are some of the same goals that theatre, as an art form, share – the overcoming of individual boundaries to create a sense of communitas, a sort of “magic” in and of itself. However, when museums and heritage sites utilize the same general methods of environmental theatre, how do the two disciplines (and I use the term very loosely, here) of theatre and history conflict/combine? Are the ritualistic, communitas-engendering (how’s that for a forced word creation?) sacrificed in order to educate visitors on history? Similarly, are the goals of educational enlightenment downplayed in order to entertain and enchant via theatrical representations? I won’t attempt to get into an answer for that here, since it would likely be very long and may just have a place in my final paper, but I wanted to throw the question out there, since I think it’s an interesting side-note to this week’s topic of discussion.
Posted by Andrew Friedenthal at 1:52 AM
Museums' Objection to Abjection
On the very first page of _The New History in an Old Museum_, without directly citing, Handler and Gable evoke Mary Douglas’ notion of dirt and pollution. (Douglas, 1966) Alluding to “road apples” - or more precisely horse shit - purposely left lying or planted on the streets of Colonial Williamsburg, they write: “Manure is authentic dirt, and instance and symbol of natural disorder. Museums are carefully managed realms of classification where everything is kept in place.” (3) This interesting juxtaposition runs throughout the readings for this week and stimulates the following question: how does the carefully organized system of museums classify abjection? Whether it’s the revisionist historians’ critical questioning of celebratory narratives of patriotism, their attempt to (re) visit the nation’s dark past in sites like Colonial Williamsburg, or the shared project of Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum to address issues of immigrants and immigration, museums are struggling to come to terms with abject notions and groups of people.
During the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s tour of the Confino apartment, in response to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s question, “What does it mean to be an American?”, ‘Victoria Confino’ tried to explain that it is ‘order’ that Americans are after. You can’t simply show up at a train station expecting to get on a train, she explained, you must first learn how to consult a schedule and arrive on the specially appointed time. According to this viewpoint - one that is more widely shared and I would venture to say a part of the popular national psyche - the immigrant is abject. Immigrants arrive, en masse, pour out of the ship as if enacting a chaotic and primitive dance and pollute the Americans who lucky to arrive a few moments before them (alright, second generation Americans). After some thought, ‘Victoria’ adds cleanliness to her list of qualities desired of the untouchables. Surprised by the question posed, I image that she creates her answer not from the ‘positive qualities of cleanliness and order’ that ought to be emulated but from negative stereotypes of immigrants, namely that they are disorderly, dirty and by extension probably stupid. To be American, therefore, means not to be a dirty and disorderly immigrant.
The notion of immigrants as national abjection is further reinforced through the fear of disease, contagion and pollution. The quarantine process and “the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, testing of gays trying to enter the country” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 178-179) later extended to all immigrants, both attest to this.
There are many parallels between the heritage and tourist productions of The Lower East Side Tenement Museum and Ellis Island as analyzed by Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. Whereas Ellis Island sets itself up as the “golden gateway” of America (181), the Tenement Museum conceives of itself as the “immigrant portal” (LESTM Educator
Training Program Introduction). Both sites serve as “repositories of patriotic sentiment” (177) as well as working toward the “neutralization of significant differences” (183). The LESTM is also a prime example of how “corporate capitalism converts historical subjects into markets”. (185) ‘Victoria Confino’ takes us on the tour of the kitchen to advertise certain commodities that the just-off-the-boat immigrants might be in dire need of: not one but two washers, a soap saver, iron. Here the museum’s mission to “activate history as a resource for considering the present” and to help people “confront [these] difficult issues” (LESTM Educator Training Program Intro.) falls a bit short. But after all this is an “extremely challenging task”, one that ought to be “the new international model for museums” and historic sites (ibid.) so maybe we shouldn’t blame they if they don’t succeed. After all, the ‘educators’ are required to “help the learner discover their fullest potential” (ibid.) in sixty whole minutes while simultaneously selling museum memberships. Thankfully, in the room across from Confino apartment the educators are offered a “refrigerator, sink and other things for [their] comfort.” (ibid.)
Posted by Dominika Bennacer at 1:10 AM
And you call this Sephardic?!
Some Sephardim like to call themselves “Sephardi tahor”, or “pure sephardi”, when they claim a Spanish heritage from the time of the Inquisition, as opposed to all other (so-called) Sephardim, Jews coming mostly from the Arab countries, who are conveniently labeled as “Sephardim” ex negativo, because they are not Ashkenazim.
Victoria, the tenant from the Tenement museum, could claim such “pure” ancestry, as she was born in the Balkans, knows a few words of Ladino (not enough to respond to me when I asked her in Ladino how she was doing), cooks traditional dishes (huevos enhaminados, bumuelos and fijones) and has trouble getting along with the “vusvus”, also known as “yiddishes”. Fine. Does that make her authentic? I’d like to tackle this question not from the point of view of the Sephardi content (which was totally acceptable to yours Sephardi truly), but from the point of view of the performance, and especially from the audience perspective.
Perhaps we were an odd group, composed of a bunch of smart intellectuals with a sharp critical sense who can’t wait for the moment when they can deconstruct performances and hold a pilpul about it over knishes and pastrami. But even as such, how much was there to argue about the performance? The setting made us believe that we were visiting an actual family (the Confinos, not just any tenant of Orchard Street), with individuals (Victoria, her parents and siblings) in their everyday environment. Instead of a personalized narrative, though, we were given generic elements through the mouth of a quasi disincarnated interpreter who seem stingy in details and uncomfortable in sharing personal opinions.
What do visitors expect from such a visit? A different museum tour that deals with everyday life, interiors and objects that may remind them from their grandparents’ house and habits? An easily accessible account of immigrant life in New York in the early 20th century? Another “learning experience” that will teach them about something they didn’t know?
The objects displayed in the apartment had a passive presence, they didn’t take on any special role in the conversation, with a few exceptions (the picture frame, the gramophone). In the kitchen, as we were about to leave, it seemed suddenly that objects needed to be introduced, passed around, touched, and given a price tag. However, as much as we were supposed to play a role and engage in the performance, Victoria was neither comfortable in complete improvisation, nor was she ready to give up on statistics that she spit out from her checklist. It felt as if she had to give us something tangible (price, value, new v. used) on our way out, as a concrete keepsake. And maybe, in the end, that’s one of the few things we got out of our interaction with Victoria. Nothing personal, nothing elaborate, whether we asked her about marriage, education, food customs, relations with neighbors, or household habits. We came out as empty-handed as we entered, except maybe for the understanding that some gramophones still work, that a washboard is not only a musical instrument from Louisiana, and that there is such a thing as a doughnut frying pan. Is this a learning experience? Is this a performance? Is this a bad act that needs a new script? Our guide insisted on the “Confino book” that every interpreter had to digest in order to be familiar with the family’s history, customs, environment, etc. I was picturing a thick volume. After my “interaction” with Victoria, I see the Confino book as no more than a flyer, containing basic facts about Sephardim (if Ladino is Spanish in Hebrew script – why then, was Victoria pointing to the psudo-newspaper of her father from left to right, when it’s read the opposite way?), a list of prices from 1916 (interesting how our guide was also insisting on the prices – Marx must be happy, he was right, everything has a value), and a bunch of instruction manuals (gramophone, soap saver, washboard…).
If the Victoria performance is meant to be different from the other apartments on view at the Tenement museum, it yields a mixed feeling: while not as stiff as a traditional talking head who gives the dry facts from an exterior perspective, Victoria remains a third party with no relation to the family she is meant to represent, and offers a cold glimpse of what her life was like in 1916. We could have heard a Ladino song rather than fox-trot, learned more about religious and culinary traditions of Sephardim, get a sense of what Victoria’s wedding would be like, and understood better why Sephardim and Ashkenazim, while all Jewish, had problems getting along. It didn’t happen.
However, given the complexity of the place, its multiple purposes, its diverse audience and its museographic efforts to offer a different narrative of immigrant life in New York City in the first half of the 20th century, the Tenement Museum deserves a thorough study such as the one presented by Handler and Gable, or Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. I feel that we need to cure our frustration by going back to the Confinos’ and their neighbors, and turn every object on display, search inside the drawers, open the closets, read labels, and figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the exhibits, the conflicting goals, the effect on the audience, the evolution of the performance.
This last dimension is what preoccupies me most regarding the Holocaust memorial in Berlin: how many functions does a display/museum/memorial have, and how conflicted are the audiences to which it is addressed? That’s probably the question that the Tenement Museum should ask itself before adding more apartments, performances and characters to their already crowded building.
Posted by Brigitte Sion at 12:48 AM
November 13, 2005
Say Sorry to Victoria.
I found this tour very beneficial for me as a comparison to my project, the Merchant’s House Museum. Both as houses built in the 19th Century, the houses were designed to serve different kinds of purpose; the Merchant’s House was built as one of the most fashionable architectures, which reflects the social status in 1832, and served as the private house for the Tredwell family since 1940 to 1933. Just 20 years after the Merchant’s House was built, and not too far from each other in distance, 97 Orchard Road started to welcome families from all over the world, and sheltered over 7000 immigrants from 1863 to 1935 according to the information provided by the Tenement Museum.
Regardless of the difference of serving one family and 7000 people (even thought the Tredwell family has nine children with several servants, it was no way to compare the crowdedness between these two houses.), I also fascinated by two different kinds of methodologies in staging not only the house but also the memory. I agree that the information we got from Victoria was not intensive enough, but I also felt very interested about the change of the stories between two groups, especially when it is a story without the support of an object (photo, cloth-washing instrument, Latino newspaper, etc.). The stories related to memories with no supportive objects rarely overlapped with each other and actually improvised with the different kinds of questions from different groups. It was a trip led by a living character to a space that is similar to what this character might have lived back in the 19th century. While in the case of the Merchant’s House Museum, as the Tredwell family actually lived, and had nine family members died in the house, due to diseases or accidents. The museum used this as a kind of advantage and staged the exhibition about the funeral scenes in the 19th century. They put the wax statue, which molded according to the figure of one of their staff in the museum, as the dead corpse of Mr. Tredwell on the same bed that Mr. Tredwell actually slept in when he swallowed his last breathe. Ordinary tour guides interpreted the history and the story about the family, while the characters of the families are motionless wax-statues or human figure models.
Both of the houses are trying to bring us back to the time of the 19th century. Personally, I felt that the Tenement museum was a little bit too forceful, especially about the long conversation with Victoria, which seems to be more like the lecture from Victoria to the audience. I did enjoy the tour about Victoria’s house, however, I felt like that I expected to walk into a movie, but after I stepped into the movie, I found out that except the main characters are in motions, other things seem to be nothing more than fixed photographs. Yet, in Merchant’s House Museum, it was more obvious that the scene was frozen at the time that Mr. Tredwell past away, and different rooms are different photographs about Mr. Tredwell’s death. I think what I do not like about the tour offered by the Tenement Musum is the inconsistency of the quality in theatricality.
Posted by Yo-Chi Li at 11:35 PM
History, Heritage, Experience
From the beginning discussion of “road apples,” Handler and Gable make it clear that in The New History in an Old Museum, they are looking outside the main frame to uncover how Colonial Williamsburg functions. Theirs is a study of a “new museum,” whose identity in a constant negociations and they use a similarly de-stabilizing anthropological approach. As opposed to traditional museum scholarship, which worked from already produced messages, Handler and Gable focus on museums as social arenas – therefore they examine what happens at Colonial Williamsburg. (9) They studied front and backstage – both the visitor’s experience and how that experience is constructed and managed. (10)
This focus on both front and backstage and the constant negotiation to create, disseminate, and receive meaning/create experience is very helpful for my project. Their approach complicates the “the triadic model of cultural producer-cultural product-cultural consumer” (11) In terms of my project, one could think of Pearl as creating the Soundwalk, which I in terms take and receive what she intended to give me. Of course, the chain of interaction is much more complex. Some questions to consider when analyzing this chain: How was it decided to do a Hasidic Woman’s Soundwalk? What experience did Pearl intend to give the taker of the Soundwalk? What experience did I have? What experience do the Soundwalk people want to give the people who take the Hasidic Woman’s Soundwalk? How much space is there for individual experience? How does beta-tester feedback influence the walk?
Like Plimoth Plantation, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is an experience of virtuality. Similar to how at Plimoth Plantation there is a museum and then the living village, at the Tenement Museum there was a question and answer period and the interaction in the tenement apartment with the “costumed interpreter.” In both cases, the theatrical interaction was balanced out by a more traditional educational experience.
One question that emerged for me in our discussion at Katz’s was why “costumed interpreters” are used. On the one hand, history can “come alive,” is a way that if visitors just move through the tenement apartments and look at labeled items it would not be possible. In general, having “costumed interpreters,” privileges experience over historical breath. Visitors must be actively engaged in order to gain the most out of the experience; both visitors and actors are active creators of the experience. Indeed, the Tenement Museum’s educational philosophy states that “all learning is centered around the learner” -- a constructivist learning approach, which is illustrated by the “costumed interpreter,” visitor experience.
Overall, I really enjoyed the "costumed interpreter" and thought she did a good job. On the note of termanology, however, I have a problem with using the term “costumed interpreter” rather than “actor,” is because I think it is disingenuous about how what is included and left out is decided upon by the institution and the actor – i.e. it doesn’t fully admit to the construction of the experience. This speaks to the problem of an institution speaking to “all immigrant experiences,” such as Ellis Island, where there are noticeable gaps in representation (i.e. African-Americans who came to the United States on slave ships).
Posted by Sarah Zoogman at 11:02 PM
“Beam me up Scotty” & Renegade Podsters
"Can the perfection of the restoration mitigate the imperfections of history?" (BKG 181)
"We cannot recreate, reconstruct, or recapture the past. We can only tell stories about the past in a present-day language, based on our present-day concerns and the knowledge (built, to be sure, out of documents and evidence) we construct today." (Handler & Gable 223)
"My words are here now, just as she was here. They’ll disappear even thought I try to keep them, record them, play them over and over in my attempts to hang onto time." (Cardiff)
Common to all the readings this week is the point that history, the recreation of history at Ellis Island, Colonial Williamsburg, Plimoth Plantation, LESTM, is a highly selective construction of the past in the present.
In the chapter on Ellis Island in Destination Culture, the buildings' restoration is focused at once on the architectural (179) and on the creation of a museum to honour all immigrants. As BKG notes, however, "The building is frozen in a narrow band of time," (180) not to mention representative of a very specific locale. Here, the museum assists in a national project of writing one very particular master narrative of immigration to the US. Contrasted with Ellis Island of the 1950s, "a heritage unworthy of shameless pride," (178) the present day version is reborn as the metynomic gateway to America.
Similarly, the LESTM, in their 'Introduction' material, professes to have been "an immigrant portal for almost 200 years." (1) Maybe I've watched too much late night sci-fi tv, but this slogan tickled my funny bone - I visualise immigrants materialising, beam-me-up-Scotty-style, before a group of museum-goers... LESTM's mission, “To promote tolerance and historical perspective through the presentation and interpretation of the variety of immigrant and migrant experiences on Manhattan’s lower Eastside, a gateway to America,” (1) and their emphasis on education and multiplicity (their Educational Philosophy (2) is all about multiplicity - of perspectives, of opinions, of learning styles etc) seems to encourage a new model of historical reconstruction that acknowledges the constructionist nature of history. Indeed, on p2, they write that they aim to set an international standard, "to activate history as a resource for considering the present." Sounds great! Do they succeed? I can't say yet as I couldn't attend today's fieldtrip (no doubt other people will post opinions on this), but I found bullet #7 of 'Responsibilities' on p3 interesting - the training spiel so far in this document leant heavily towards education, the tourguide's role as 'educator', but #7 ("Representing the LESTM to visitors, informing them of the Museum’s goals, programs and needs for financial assistance and selling memberships.") sees the tension between this and the other reality of financial responsibility arise. Like at Colonial Willliamsburg, Disney is always around the corner.
Richard Handler and Eric Gable's two-year study of Colonial Williamsburg, the "site museum to end all site museums" (Hudson in Handler 15), is impressive - as they say on p15, "We gradually learned that our plan to study the entire foundation was infeasible, even for three researchers." Propelled by the change in the 1970s and 80s to present a story more critical than celebratory, and a history that is a construct of 'today', extensive fieldwork allowed the researchers to look at how history is produced, managed and consumed. Despite previous claims, their depressing findings were that "Colonial Willamsburg, it seemed to us, was still a Republican Disneyland." (221)
I found Handler and Gable's section on the 'Patriot Tour' in ch3 interesting: the tour (any tour) is a "kinetic map," focusing participants' attention, managing the what, the where, the how much one sees or experiences. (51) Their choice to examine this tour is a strong way to understand just what it going on; by examining what you WANT us to see, we can analyse what the organisation, foundation etc imagines its project to be. This is useful for me in my research on Cardiff's Her Long Black Hair, realising just how managed and selective her manipulations of the environment are, and how this is both a key to understanding the Walk, how the Walk works, and how individual agency (or the relinquishing of agency) is related.
In BKG's chapter on Plimoth Plantation, she says, "tourism recodes space and time." (194) This is definitely what Cardiff does in her Walks - further, how might I compare Her Long Black Hair to the historic recreations of this week? Is HLBH a historic recreation of sorts? - of the landscape of Central Park, of New York, of Janet's* walk, of her walk when in art school, of the walk the woman in the photos took, of my previous times in Central Park... In terms of the nineteenth century history of exhibiting copies (195), is Cardiff a supreme example? The highly replicable CD - a copy of a copy of a copy of Janet... Yet it produces a relationship of extreme intimacy with Janet (a similar intimacy of experience created by face-to-face encounters with the actors at Colonial Williamsburg or Plimoth Plantation?). Like the living museum, the actual sits alongside the virtual in Cardiff's Walks - in her careful layering of recorded sounds and spaces for realtime ones, and in her references to realtime people or objects; and also in the highlighting of the presence of the actual body together with the virtual presence of Janet and the virtual body made through your merging with her. Her narratives are open-ended and multiple "interpretation[s] of the past." (Handler & Gable 223)
Here is my proposal: what if you interpreted/recreated a historic site by making lots of different tours/audiowalks, first person narratives by different people, at different points in time etc, commenting on multiple aspects of the museum/site - it's funding principles, encounters with the site, past stories, events, whatever - with no attempt to reconcile them to one another? Visitors could choose three at the entry desk, turn them in for a couple more at the cafeteria (while also getting a quick snack), and do one more after buying souvenirs at the gift shop. What sort of Ellis Island would that make? This is maybe the chance for renegade podcasters to find gainful employment...
... or, having done the Ground Zero soundwalk yesterday, maybe this could be a model... although I didn't necessarily like it or think that it worked splendiferously...
* Note, I use 'Janet' to refer to the persona created on the recording, and 'Cardiff' to refer to the artist.
Posted by Justine Shih Pearson at 10:35 PM
When role-playing goes wrong!!!!!!!
First, I would like to begin this post by noting that my experience at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum was quite memorable, to say the least! After a series of calamities, a friend and myself reached the museum late and were told that we were to function as a Hungarian family in one of the tenements. However, we (my friend and myself), ended up losing the group, and as the "black sheep" of the family-no pun intended, we decided to engage in the other narratives being told in other tenenements throughout the museum. During this excursion we heard a loud thump on the floor. Thinking nothing of it, we proceeded to other parts of the museum. We believed the people involved to be role-playing or "costume interpreters." Lo and behold, however, and much to our chagrin, they were not "costume interpreters", but in fact, an English gentleman by the name of Martin had slipped into a diabetic coma! Needless to say, we got the heck outta' Dodge only to be reunited with BKG and our original group at the Visitors Center across the street!
Who knew we'd be creating a narrative of our own!
Despite all of these calamities, however, from the little part of the tour I did experience, I was able to extrapilate some key points that were provocative and useful for my project on the Seward Park Urban Renewal Plan. BKG and Aniko raised an extremely provocative question that ultimately presented a challenge for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. They asked, "What happens to the people who did not come through Ellis Island, or in other words, how does this tour relate to them? or How can they find meaning in this tour?" The tour guide spoke of advocacy programs that promote tolerance, which reminded me of last week's lecture with the UNESCO intangible heritage conference and tolerance vs. celebrating diversity. These questions also reflect Casey's article that dealt with the concept of habitus, which proved helpful for my project. The museum really attempts to capture a narrative that gives voice to how people experience a space and a self/space relationship. These families occupied these tenements and now, the museum is attempting to give voice to this experience. I am exploring this relationship for my project and am delving into the power of the narrative as it relates to the self/space concept. I want to also explore the ethnic groups represented currently in this area of the Lower East Side in comparison with the ethnic groups of the past. The tour guide or "costume interpreter" also suggested that a common ground between ethnicities who did not come through Ellis Island and those families represented by the museum is that of affordable housing. This sparked my interest, because one of the main arguments against more low-income housing in the Seward Park area, was that of "ghettoizing" the neighborhood and that employment was the answer. How interesting this is in relation to the information or Tenement Museum website, for it seems as if those individuals who occupy low-income housing are being used as scapegoats in a way. They in fact, in some of the newspaper articles about the Seward Park Urban Renewal Plan, are blamed by other residents for "running down" the neighborhood. They are seen as criminal, undeserving; they are "othered', much like Italians, the Irish, etc. were blamed for the spread of several diseases during the late 1800's and early 1900's. The "scape-goat" narrative (sorry for using this somewhat usely), is one I will continue to explore during the duration of my research as a part of the interaction between self and space.
Posted by Michelle Brown at 10:05 PM
11 year-old Polish girl writes
“However seductive the rhetoric that surrounds it, memory is not reclaimed it is produced” (187)—can I apply BKG’s statement to LESTM? I liked my LESTM experience and enjoyed my role as 11 year-old from Poland, but as far as learning—I didn’t. The theatricality involved made me forget the historical element concerning my visit. I wanted to see. Instead of looking at the space, studying the space, admiring the space, I listened and listened and listened some more—which made me question the space. One brochure (of the many different available at the gift shop) read that The Confino Family Apartment tour is “Perfect for kids and families!” It would have been interesting, as Aniko mentioned at Kats, if we could have experienced the tour with different mindsets.
Although allowed, I felt a little inhibited about touching without permission. I entered the museum mode (no touching, no pictures, silence), and only touched objects she handed over to us. I lived out my restrained desires through Sioban, who ventured into the parent’s room and tried on mom’s hat, inspected dad’s dirty work boots, and flipped through a tiny calendar on the wall. It seems like the museum takes a lot of pride in letting people touch, it is a fact that our educator felt essential to point out, but I still held back. As a guest in Victoria’s house, I still wouldn’t have anyway—does LESTM consciously know this?
Ellis Island wasn’t initially a very welcoming environment, as BKG mentions in her text, but now it happily opens its doors to people (especially tourists) around the world. I suppose the hostility was true for immigrants arriving or adjusting to any new space in America. Although staged nicely, I wonder if our welcome was a little overacted? In their text The New History in an Old Museum, Richard Handler and Eric Gable mention that Colonial Williamsburg needed a little poop on the street to give the area an aura of authenticity—it needed the dirty to make it believable. Like Tyler,I had a hard time believing the “dirty” in the Confino apartment (If there was really any “dirt” in it). There was furniture, period clothes, dishes, frames, Victoria—but no funk, no life (It would have been a nice surprise to see her fifty brothers come in through the door and kick us out). But, then again, I wouldn’t believe the dirty in “road apples” either (even though poop is dirty)--a little too desperate?
I was a little sad because I had previously read that we would be allowed to try on period clothing—and we didn’t (except for Sioban trying on mom’s hat!)
Posted by Alma Guzman at 9:16 PM
Education, Entertainment, and Icons
Handler and Gabe provide a clear description of their methodology of collecting data from their site, Colonial Williamsburgh, drawing from on-site observations, public access documents, internal documents, and hundreds of interviews from everyone from visitors to front-line interpreters to backstage support staff (maintenance to curators) to vice-presidents in upper management. They ultimately focus on public educational programs, interviews with staff members who worked with objects and artifacts, the hotel and restaurant works’ union issues, the corporate culture of the foundation, and particularly salient issue of African American history issues. I appreciated how they attempted to not approach the analysis of the data through a preconceived theoretical lens or argument. By attempting to analyze data from a more “open mind”, they realized that, within the site, causal relationships were not simplistic nor uni-directional. For example, the public informs ideology to interpreters as much as interpreters inform the public. Yet, ultimately, one must decide upon a view or structure of analysis to give shape to an otherwise inchoate mass of date. One must simplify the whole. I think about this as I turn to my project, which serendipitously happens to be the Confino Apartment tour at the Lower East Side Tenement Musuem.
First of all, I want to express my gratitude to everyone who took the time to go to Katz and share their thoughts and feelings about the tour we took today. It really helps me flesh out my thoughts about site. Of course, the drawback to such a wonderful gift is that the more thoughts and approaches I use to consider the site, the more difficult it is for me to establish a clear analysis of study! I’m not going to present my final project here in this posting, so I’ll just put forth one or two ideas that are floating around in my mind when considering our readings and my recent tours of LES.
I don’t know how helpful it may be as a concluding analysis, but as a starting point, I am drawn to binaries or comparisons of the different definitions and motivations within the sites of Plimoth Plantation, Colonial Williamsburgh, and the LES Tenement Musuem. Each site has multiple competing reasons to exist and subsequent ways of defining themselves and their productions. Plimoth Plantation sees itself as an educational institution with a drive to provide accurate historical data. It also sees itself as a corporate entity that needs to provide entertainment to its visitors, since it relies on ticket sales for 90% of its’ operating budget. (This data actually comes out of a study from the late 80s, so this figure may not be the case today.) Finally, Plimoth Plantation sees itself as the trust of a primary national identity or narrative icon. These three motivations and conceptions of identity are not necessarily wholly compatible. For example, one of the biggest tourist draws each year was a summer-time reenactment of a marriage that took place in 1626. Historical reality requires that the ceremony be rather austere. However, Plimoth Plantation decided that in this case the need to entertain outweighed the need to replicate accurately, and therefore decided to included historically inaccurate events such as music, song, dancing, as well as sporting and feasting. At other times, historical accuracy seems to win out, such as the acknowledgment that the first Thanksgiving Feast had very little in common with today’s collective mythic conception. Visitors that come expecting such a celebration are disappointed by frontline interpreters who enthusiastic perform as “myth-busters” and enact a very normal workday, going about their business of preparing for the coming winter.
Colonial Williamsburgh also suffers from competing interests and identities, being referred in turn as a “Republican Disneyland,” “living history museum,” mega golf resort,” and a “serious educational institution.” Handler and Gable discuss these identities are in constant flux with institutional players and the public, all of whom inform on and compete regarding the various definitions.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum also experiences multiple missions and subsequent identities. It is a “museum of conscience” with a goal of advocating for tolerance and open dialogue regarding current immigration and diversity issues. It is also an historical site with the goal of educating visitors on accurate historical information. Finally, it is a site of entertainment with the goal (in line with all of modern tourism) of providing quality experiential entertainment. In fact, LES provides instruction and consultation to other museums on how to draw visitors by making their sites more entertaining. So, my question is: are the functions of education and entertainment disparate? Or, in the case of historical museum sites, much one sacrifice the amount of information taught or even the accuracy of that information in order to provide a level of entertainment necessary to continue the longevity of--and interest in--the site?
The answer, unfortunately, is not simple. There are many factors involved. Who is the target audience to be educated and entertained? Acceptable levels of education are different for school children than for adults. The same is true for experiential pleasure. Seocndly, what is the true mission of the site’s advocacy, to “create dialogue” or to “promote tolerance?” They are not necessary the same thing. How immigrant history is performed will impact how the site functions. If the costumed interpreter “Victoria Confino” paints a picture of model ethnic harmony and a “white-washed” image of all immigrants, there will result a much different visitor conception of historical immigrants that if Victoria is portrayed as a racist, nasty person plagued with tuberculosis and hatred for others. During our discussion at Katz’s, one person stated that she felt uneasy about being forced to view one overwhelming image of that time period, for what if it was inaccurate? Lastly, there are important pedagogical questions regarding how a museum transmits information. A two-way, first-person interpretation of living history provides knowledge that labels and written information cannot. On the other hand, as also mentioned in our discussion, such experiential learning requires a suspension of disbelief that hinders one’s ability to regard the presented information with critical thinking.
The next step in my investigation will require interviewing the LES's educational directors. Their ideology and desires regarding the efficacy and outcome of the Confino Tour will certainly not be clear-cut, but perhaps I will be able to learn some about their own struggles regarding the multiple requirements of the site production. This will lead me to look at the strategies for succeeding in both goals. What is necessary for the site to be as historically accurate as possible? And on the other hand, what is necessary to provide the most pleasurable or impactful experience on visitors? In what ways should the production improve upon it’s environmental theater efforts? In what ways does that hinder the educational aspect, and vice-versa? Finally, how does the museum measure their success and achievement of their goals?
Posted by Scott Wallin at 9:16 PM
Bringing out the big guns and hoping to do some shooting.
In Handler and Gable’s work The New History in an Old Museum, they present a rigorously researched and admirably detailed investigation of an extremely complex tourist production. Though the field of museum studies (and anthropology for that matter) is relatively new to me, I found their work thorough, well grounded in the facts, (I employ the term in the least problematic manner) and immensely interesting with regard to methodology. Differing from most museum studies, they sought to uncover the processes of the “institutional life through which museum workers and audiences create…[museum] messages (Handler and Gable 10).
Carrying out their goal required great ingenuity in the collecting of data and new thinking with regard to the data they utilized. Thus, they consulted with frontline employees, visitors, management, training sessions, and historical records among other things. However, despite the comprehensiveness of their investigations, I found their study ultimately dissatisfying. While they did an excellent job of mapping the “hows” of the museum, as I shall elucidate further in a moment, I found them to ultimately fail at providing the “whys.” Furthermore, much like the museum’s management whom they fault for claiming to know what visitors want, or for falling back on education and the “facts,” I believe that Handler Gable’s own preconceptions about their research site and their expected readership exerted undue influence on their own processing of the “facts,” as they overemphasized certain aspects while giving short shrift to others. Perhaps providing the “whys” was beyond the ken of their research, or they felt it would be overstepping their bounds. Whatever the case, I wish they had done so more explicitly, at least provisionally, for I think it of tremendous importance.
A good example of H + G’s hyper-criticality is found on pages 120-121 in their discussion of the presentation of wigs. H + G fault interpreters for drawing connections between the inhabitants of Williamsburg and their wigs, and modern day visitors and their tight jeans or painful shoes. They present the interpreters’ handling of the subject matter as insulting to visitors (particularly female) and overemphasizing the grotesqueness of the wigs. I would argue that an equally convincing case could be made by the interpreters and the visitors that these are effective pedagogical strategies employed without malicious intent. They hold visitors’ interest, and simultaneously distance them from the ways of the past, while still enabling them to draw connections with the principles still at work in their own lives. However, H + G don’t give these groups voice. They present only their own subjective interpretation of events, the same one-sidedness for which they often fault the museum. I present only one example here, but I’m certain that there are numerous others. This fact raises a question that overshadows my overall reading of H +G: Based on the fact that H + G’s purpose is very similar to Williamsburg’s, that is, to gather information, interpret, educate, and also to sell books, to what extent did H + G manipulate their data or extrapolate from limited info to suit the purpose of their book?
Back to the “how’s.” I found several of their findings quite fascinating. First, their discussion of employee training (80-81) in which “deduction was masked as induction.” Second, passive sentence construction to eliminate the presence of slaves (113). Third, the necessity for the interpreter to pretend a personal connection with the visitor to disguise his role as faceless consumer (176). Fourth, the importance of the “appearance of spontaneity” though both interpreter and visitor knew it was false (184). H + G deal with these topics in varying degrees of detail, but they never step back to consider the greater implications of such observations and what they might tell us about the greater museum going experience or human interactions more generally.
Continuing in the vein above, I come to the largest question in my brain right now, the “why.” The production of master narratives is present at each of the sites up for discussion today, most visibly at Williamsburg and Ellis Island, but also at Plymouth and the Tenement Museum. Each of these sites is a business venture at root, no matter their professed position. Even the most altruistic organization still has to sustain itself. I believe that the visitors demand these narratives as much as the institution produces them. Each of these places has to continue getting “butts in the seats,” so to speak. Perhaps we can’t answer the following, but I’d sure like to try. If museums and their historians aren’t constructing these “national myths” and forcing them on visitors, but rather fulfilling visitors’ expectations, where and how are these myths constructed? How can we fight against them when necessary? Why are visitors going to the trouble to visit these places, ostensibly to visit somewhere different, when they’re in effect getting more of the same?
The ramifications of these questions are huge. They come into play not only in museums, but also in regard to television shows, movies, tourism in general, and theme restaurants as subtle as the “Olive Garden” or “Applebee’s.” They speak to a general lack of critical thinking and an unwillingness or inability to critically engage with material that I find deeply troubling. I’m very interested in any and all of your thoughts on these matters.
Posted by Tyler Sinclair at 9:02 PM
New York Renaissance Faire
For the past 28 years, in Tuxedo, New York, hundreds of people have flocked to Sterling Forest to experience a recreation of a Renaissance village during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. This event, formally called The New York Renaissance Faire (NYRF), happens yearly over the summer months. Like Plimoth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg, the NYRF is a tourist attraction that offers visitors the chance to travel back in time and interactively explore a village inhabited by period specific actors. However, the NYRF differs from Plimoth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg in several key aspects. In Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s study of Plimoth Plantation, she discovers three clocks acting concurrently in historical re-creations. The first clock is “of the historical moment chosen for re-creation” (197). Unlike Plimoth Plantation, the NYRF does not freeze time at a specific year. Rather, during each summer season, the year changes to coincide with a particular event during Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The 2005 season presents 1588 and a celebration of the defeat of the Spanish Armada
The second clock is the heritage clock, which is “sustained through reversal” (198). Since “heritage is created through a process of exhibition” value must continually be added to sites, by means of exhibition, in order to maintain the quality of heritage (149). BKG sites the continual revisions done to the buildings on Plimoth Plantation as an example of how the heritage clock keeps running despite the fact that history stands still. According to Douglas MacKrell, who has worked at the NYRF for 7 years, costumes are occasionally remade and new ones are added. MacKrell finds that the costumes become more elaborate each year. The added elaborateness of costumes does not necessarily equate with added historical accuracy; however, it does add overall value to the spectacle of the site.
The last clock BKG references is the clock that the “visitors bring to the site—the time of their lives” (198). This clock would be concurrent with the date and time the visitor finds on her cell phone. This clock also exists in physical objects, such as flushing toilets, water fountains, and ATMs, along with other modern comforts that people find difficult to live without. The NYRF, however, does not adhere perfectly to BKG’s clock scheme. The first clock becomes problematic because, unlike Plimoth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg, the faire site is not a historical site. Elizabethan England never existed in Orange County, New York. The town that is re-created, called the Sterling Shire, never actually existed, but rather it is named after the state park that the faire is built upon. Time may be able to stop on 1588, but it will never be able to re-create to any extent, a place that actually existed in that year. Secondly, perhaps because of its lack of direct historical connection, the NYRF is able to operate on several more clocks.
The most prominent of all clocks is the folklore clock. A key narrative and storyline to the event revolves around the exploits of the legendary Robin Hood. Since Robin Hood is a figure of legend, one may argue that he is not fictional, but based on truth. However, it is a fact that he did not exist in the flesh during 1588, nor did he hold conferences with Queen Elizabeth. A related clock is historical, but anachronistic. Occasionally, famous historical figures will appear in the shire, such as Leonardo da Vinci. Unfortunately, Leonardo da Vinci died in 1519, fourteen years before the birth of Queen Elizabeth. There is one more clock running, that is not necessarily observable by a first-time visitor.
This clock is situated within the history of the NYRF itself. Since actors, shopkeepers, and patrons return to the faire year after year, there is collective memory created within the world of the faire. Actors, shopkeepers, and patrons recognize and reference this history—a history that is neither historical, as in the first clock; nor fictional, as in the folklore clock. This history happened to them in the context, not of the third clock, but in the context of the event itself. An example of how this clock works is found within the character of Jenny Wren. According to MacKrell, Jenny Wren is “a made-up character to pad out women in the Robin Hood band.” One year, the mayor of the town declared that anyone who weds his daughter, Jenny, would succeed his position upon his death. That year, Jenny Wren wed the character Will Scarlet, who is an actual character in the Robin Hood legend. The following faire year, since the same actor playing the mayor did not return, Will Scarlet became the mayor. This, of course, has no actual precedence within the Robin Hood legend, but was entirely created within the running clock of NYRF history. Each year, in the NYRF pamphlet distributed to patrons upon their entrance to the faire and $1, there is a section entitled “What’s New at the Faire.” This section successfully chronicles, not only new stores, performers, rides, and carnival games, but also the way in which the plotlines of years past bleed into the current season.
The NYRF has so many clocks running, that no one clock presents the definitive master narrative of the site. Historical facts are exhibited alongside historical fictions, and outright fictions (as in the character of Jenny Wren). This can create a certain kind of confusion, especially since these clocks do not necessarily act together without some discord. A patron looking for one clock might feel betrayed when they are instead presented with a competing clock. Occasionally, people go to the NYRF seeking historical accuracy. For instance, the NYRF actively tries to bring in school groups. Their pamphlet says that the faire “provides an excellent opportunity to enhance classroom studies on the Renaissance.” Yet, the faire makes no pretense at being a museum. The actual is never presented alongside the virtual in a show of truth. Shows such as “The Brothers Grime,” also known as the mud pit show, do not make any attempt whatsoever at historical accuracy or even reference it. Instead, one of their shows presents a take-off of the modern day children’s show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Historical inaccuracies abound, such as nachos, paddleboats, skimpy corsets, chainsaw jugglers, Captain Jack Swallow from the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, fairy wings, and the list goes on and on. Thus, there is no guarantee that a field trip to the NYRF will actually educate. Indeed, it may even create confusion if a patron mistakes one clock for another (for instance if someone thought Robin Hood actually worked for Queen Elizabeth).
Actors and shopkeepers also struggle with the competing clocks. Faire workers are not given history lessons beyond the scripts they must memorize and perform. Thus, when patrons engage faire folk in an unscripted dialogue, as they are encouraged to do, there is no strict adherence to any one of the multiple histories at play. When MacKrell was asked, while in character, what year it was, he responded, “Tuesday.” Later he confided that this was because he didn’t know what historical year it was supposed to be, although he considered his answer acceptable since his character was a stupid peasant. Actors have to live in all of the clocks at one moment. Often times, an actor will favor one clock over another. MacKrell favors the inner NYRF clock over the historical or folklore clocks, choosing the authenticity of his character over the authenticity of 1588 or folklore.
Despite these difficulties, the NYRF is a popular destination for tourists. For most, the commingling of multiple clocks and narratives does not create a large problem. Edward M. Bruner finds that tourists do not value authenticity as highly as “a good show” (Culture on Tour, 3). If anything, the NYRF is a capitalist enterprise that always seeks to put on a good show.
Posted by Lisa Reinke at 6:43 PM
Connecting the Past and Present through Performance
Posted by Siobhan Robinson at 5:46 PM
November 11, 2005
Sunday Tenement Sunday
In The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg, Richard Handler and Eric Gable employ anthropological research tactics to analyze Colonial Williamsburg as a museological enterprise revealing of cultural politics inherent in history display. Their questions are not atypical to the discourse on museum politics; they ask how value is assigned to the past and who is given the right to make such valuations? Their research technique strays from typical analysis of museum display.
After identifying the museum mission as a representation of new social history which challenged the previous “celebration” of history at Colonial Williamsburg, Handler and Gable looked for all aspects of museum functioning (back end and front end) that contributed to the achievement of the museum mission. Rather than limit their research to the interaction between viewer and display, Handler and Gable approached Colonial Williamsburg as anthropologist approach a village; no aspect was outside the realm of their interest and they collected interviews, recorded tours, participated in educational programs, and sifted through archives that contained information regarding policies, statistics, and budgets. The format they used was to describe the site, identify conflicts over the site, and out of this identify their main question: how does Colonial Williamsburg reveal reconciliation of different views of the past? They used anthropological data collection to understand how the different social organisms of Colonial Williamsburg contribute to the way museum meanings are made (10). This same format was reiterated throughout their chapters. From particular areas of focus, they analyzed aspects of the site within the framework of the focused theme. For instance, they explored the importance of “image making” within Colonial Williamsburg by tracing the history of the site to Rockefeller, connecting the importance of image at the site to the importance of image to the Rockefeller family.
This technique can easily be applied (on a smaller scale) to my analysis of Sepharad ’92. As Kirhsenblatt-Gimblett states, “heritage is the transvaluation of the obsolete, the mistaken, the outmoded, the dead and the defunct” (149). I will attempt to show how Sepharad ‘92 took the opportunity of an anniversary of an ill fated historical moment to go through the process of “documentation, reenactment, display, and performance,” described by Kirshenblatt-Gimblett as the process of becoming heritage. I will point out through news publications that the community creating Sepharad ’92 were self conscious of their relationship to their past and perceived a lack of present tense relevance. Applying Handler and Gable’s format, I will start by mapping the global events of Sepharad ’92 as a way of describing the “site.” Through newspaper articles, I will describe themes that arose in the planning, organization, and documentation of Sepharad ’92; one such theme being Sephardic Jewry’s attempt at reclaiming a communal position commensurate with past cultural glories. I will then focus on a particular event, the Odyssey Cruise that brought American Jews to Europe and Israel, stopping at points along the way that offered safe haven to expelled Spanish Jews. I will connect the specifics of this event to the larger themes identified through the news articles.
The Odyssey Cruise of 1992 created a situation where American Jews were offered the opportunity to “retrace the steps” of their ancestors as they were expelled from Spain. This physical act of retracing steps is one of the most significant common denominators between Ellis Island, Plymouth Plantation, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (LESTM). These four sites create an environment that fosters an empathetic process by which contemporary humans attempt to feel the past by movements through a space characterized by its past inhabitants. The degree to which a participant can retrace the past is an element of focus in the design and set up of these sites. For instance, The Confino apartment went a step beyond other apartments in the LESTM by adding a narrator who role played the era on display and requesting viewers to role play as immigrants. The viewer of other LESTM apartments can retrace steps only through visual observation but with Confino, the viewer retraces through mimicry. Retracing refers to action external to the body but roll playing implies transforming the body into a past being and internally digesting the history involved.
Like the other sites, visitors at Plymouth Plantation “negotiate a path” of participation into the past (192). However, as a combined site of “actual” objects on display at the museum and “virtual” life represented in the village, Plymouth Plantation conveys the message that actual objects fall short in conveying historical messages and that the “virtual” representations do the imagining for the viewer, filling in an image the presenters are not confident viewers would create otherwise. Looking at the relationship between actual object and virtual reenactment, it is interesting to think about the Confino apartment as a virtual reenactment where even the objects are not actual. The objects are at the mercy of the virtual. They are real somethings but not real artifacts of the time frame being virtualized. At the LESTM the only actual is the building itself. Had the building itself been considered a successful prescient tool for communicating history, none of the theatrics would need be applied to the space.
The sites share a death sequence or a point when the site had “outlived its usefulness” (178). Often, topics related to the site death become the key message in the present incarnation of the site. For instance, Ellis Island became obsolete when immigration laws where changed and a heavy theme of the Ellis Island present site is to get people thinking about immigration laws. The tenement of the LESTM (97 Orchard Street) died in 1935 when housing laws made such living conditions illegal. One of the aims of the site is to make people think about present day immigrant rights and opportunities. I participated in The Kitchen Conversation at the end of the tour which in ways well beyond the theatrical apartment visited, revealed the topics considered most important by the museum. Questions the mediator asked in order to encourage dialogue included “how do you answer the question, where are you from?” “What is going on in your community,” “Are there many immigrants in your community?” etc. I understood the focus to be on tolerance. This was confirmed by the mission statement available in their training guide, “our mission is to promote tolerance and historical perspective….” Historical perspective I would like to consider more within the context of the apartment exhibits.
All four sites represent the American narrative of immigrant based origins progressing into an improved American life story. The degree to which they show reverence for this narrative varies from Ellis Island’s oversimplified glorification of this narrative through Colonial Williamsburg’s less reverent attempts to foster historical critique. All of these sites mask elaborate federal beurocracy or civic challenges as historical process: Ellis turns difficult immigration process into a pleasurable, unstressful, nonburdened puzzle and game for viewers; the LESTM turns horrible living conditions into a pleasurable Sunday afternoon role play and dialogue over cookies; and Plymouth Rock applies a sameness to all past American immigrants that just doesn’t exist.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett describes that history is not being used as a learning tool but as an eraser dulling the errors of human past. I observed this at the LESTM where I felt specificity was neutralized in order to widen the appeal of the museum. There is a clear attempt to soften the “Jewish” particularity of the history of the street, building, apartments and families on display, in order to attract a wider audience and to achieve the mission of presenting a variety of immigrant experiences. Exhibits at the LESTM are organized around general “immigrant” stories or “depression” stories or “garment workers” stories and not to Jewish experience in America despite the predominant Jewish history involved. When introduced to Victoria Confino, there was little mention of her Jewish background, what it was like to be Jewish at the time, or how that Jewishness manifested itself, other than when I, role playing as a curious immigrant, asked if she went to synagogue. Instead, focus was on how to survive as an immigrant, who to speak to in order to rent space, what conditions as general non-sectarian immigrants they lived under, and what equipment we, the new immigrants, should buy for our homes first.
Likewise, the gift shop of the LESTM is another interesting space of mass general appeal. It both serves the greater public as a rather interesting store of books and chotchkes in a charming neighborhood and stands in as the ticket booth for the apartment tours and the meeting spot for all tours. It is full of action and congestion and would also warrant further investigation. The presence of Jewish themed paraphernalia, books, stickers, and holiday items, alludes to the Jewish orientation of the site but is mitigated by the larger selection of general interest books and objects that create a store representative of the typical Lower East Side boutique. Jewishness here is subdued.
If I were not already emerged within a topic, I would go further with the LESTM. It seems a fantastic location for field work with interesting dynamics between the current neighborhood and its interaction with the site, compared to the building and its placement within the neighborhoods of the past. The gift shop/ticket booth set up seems rich for investigation, as well as the roles of the Kitchen conversation mediators and the introduction guides, like Rose Teitelbaum, whose job it was to introduce me to “Victoria Confino.”
Posted by Erin Madorsky at 7:42 PM