Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Tag: The Wider World (page 2 of 4)

Darkness Illuminates — Guest Post by Tufts Undergraduate Jenny Allison

A little over a month ago, I posted some of my own reactions to participating in the Slave Dwelling Project’s overnight at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford.

Accuracy vs. Authenticity in Slave Quarters — Reflections and A Call To Action

Now, as the year draws to a close, The Slave Dwelling Project has posted a great 2014 wrap-up including descriptions of the many sites that Joe McGill, the project’s founder and leader, visited.

Below is a response to the Royall House and Slave Quarters overnight by Jenny Allison, a Tufts undergraduate who also participated.

-Tegan

“Okay, everybody ready? Turn your lights off.”

 

The darkness is absolute. Everyone in the room falls silent; our breaths are raggedy from the cold scratching at our throats. The only illumination is a hazy purple-ish color, seeping in from the neighbor’s porch lights.

 

“The family who lived here wouldn’t have even had this amount of light,” Gracelaw, one of my companions, mentions. “They had no neighbors. It was just their family for 500 square acres.”

 

If anyone would know, Gracelaw would. She serves on the volunteer board of the Royall House, a preserved colonial estate and corresponding slave quarters in Medford, Massachusetts. The estate is a working museum; local area residents can visit and learn about the Royall family, who inhabited the mansion over multiple generations.

 

But at night, the rooms are cold and dark. No electric lights cast illumination over the sparse wooden furniture. In the small kitchen, our flashlights gleam eerily over rows of identical engraved silver plates. In the pale reflected light, I stare at the boxy wooden table and wonder who might have sat there on other cold nights, staring at a candle or speaking in hushed tones.

 

“The slaves were here every night long after their masters had retired to bed,” Gracelaw continues. “They were always the last to go to bed and the first to rise.” She gestures to a meager pile of what looks like scratchy cotton pillows, lumped haphazardly in one corner. “One or two might have even slept in here.”

 

My breath steams in the light of my headlamp, and I wonder how people were able to sleep when it was so chilly every night. After all, I am here, at least in part, to commemorate their experience: I am here to honor the hundreds of slaves who slept every night in these very spaces. And I do mean hundreds—the Royall family documented roughly 500 slaves in their possession over the course of a few decades.

 

In the slave quarters themselves, there is electric light and heat; our actual sleeping experience is quite comfortable. Lying in the darkness, surrounded by the quiet breathing of a handful of other Tufts students and our adult companions, I do not feel distressed. Though the history below my sleeping bag is sobering, it is difficult to feel agitated when so many people surround me. Being able to share a heavy experience with even one companion lightens its burden. Part of this makes me hopeful—hopeful that slaves were able to find true comfort in their enslaved companions, their families, their children. There is power in sharing, especially when it comes to pain, and that power should not be overlooked.

 

As I stare up into the blackness, trying to make out the ceiling, I marvel at how significant my experience would be to someone descended from slaves. For as captivating, and as meaningful, as this space is to me, it is more personally meaningful to somebody else.

 

My thoughts on this matter naturally shift to musings about the importance—perhaps even the cultural necessity—of historical space. Knowing a history, a personal story, is one step, but being in a place where such a thing really happened feels different entirely. The cold and the darkness make the experience more real than objects in glass cases ever could.

 

My fingertips are cold. I wonder how slaves slept to keep warm—curled up in a little ball?

 

And what about people who do not have such spaces? What of Native Americans who cannot return to well-preserved dwellings and connect to their ancestors that way? How can they preserve their history in an equally compelling and meaningful way? I do not know.

 

The questions swirl in my brain—and I know deep down that we may never find their answers. But we do know how to ensure that we keep asking these questions—we do it by doing what we are doing, by doing what Joe McGill is doing. We bring attention to these spaces, and we interact with them, and we revive them and fill them with our energy, creating a sort of bond arcing back through the centuries to touch the people who were enslaved here so many years ago.

 

And as I lie there, curled in a little ball, my eyes sinking shut, I do truly feel as if I have gained insight tonight. Because even though I will never be able to know what it really felt like to go to bed each night a slave, I can begin somewhere.

 

We have begun here.

Jenny Allison

Tufts University 2017

Accuracy vs. Authenticity in Slave Quarters — Reflections and A Call To Action

On Friday, October 10, I had the unusual privilege of spending the night in the slave quarters of the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, MA as a part of The Slave Dwelling Project, organized by Joseph McGill. This project is intended in part to raise awareness about slave quarters that still exist, and it got me thinking about what it means to have a former slave quarters as part of a historic house museum, what works, and what doesn’t. It’s a difficult subject to write about, because the past is full of powerful emotions and the future is full of hard work, but I do have some thoughts I want to share.

 

There is very little information about the slave quarters on the Royall estate. There is no surviving inventory and few or no description, so much of what is known has been determined through an extensive archaeology project and the evidence in the physical structure of the building. However, the building had been modernized by previous owners, which is probably the reason it is still standing, but also meant a loss of information and historical accuracy. The first floor was probably once three rooms and a kitchen, used by enslaved workers for their daily duties but not for sleeping. Now, it’s all one room except for the kitchen, and it’s used by the Royall House Association for talks, events, and other large gatherings of people. Often these events help visitors go deeper with the history of the site.The second floor of the slave quarters is a private residence. The first time I visited the museum, my friend who I had gone with told me afterwards that she was very disappointed, because she expected the slave quarters to be the big finish of the tour. On this visit, I learned that the space is used as the residence for a caretaker of the site.

SQ_meeting_room_with_staircase_kelliher_2013

The Royall House Museum and Slave Quarters has come a very long way in telling the story of all of the inhabitants from the period they are interpreting, but there’s still a lot that visitors are missing. The overnight I spent there helped me understanding just how huge the gaps in the story are. On a typical tour, visitors are guided through the colonial mansion on the property and told the story of the intertwined lives of the Royall family and the people they held as their slaves, and that’s an important story to tell, but it’s one that a historic site can tell whether or not the site includes still-standing slave quarters.

 

The colonial mansion is a different story; every room is filled with period furnishings, some owned by the Royalls. The contrast between the slave quarters and the mansion illustrates a familiar problem in museum work, which is that the belongings of wealthy and privileged people have been preserved over time, and the belongings of the poor and enslaved were used until they fell apart or were discarded. There simply isn’t the same stuff available. Yet, a few years ago, the Royall House Association transformed two rooms in the mansion from a colonial revival treatment they had used for decades into historically accurate spaces. Using an inventory of the house written as part of the executing of the first owner’s will, the Association started bRH_winter_kitchen_loan_exhibitiony taking erroneous items out of the chamber above the kitchen, and talking to visitors in an empty room. Once they secured the funding, they added the objects that would have actually been there (mostly replicas). Through an incredible amount of work and dedication, the house is now quite accurate to the inventory.

 

spitjack_300dpi

Accuracy takes on a different meaning when you are sleeping in the place that was once the site of someone’s captivity. The whole Slave Dwelling Project takes a lot of imagination. Each participant works to imagine ourselves in the past, even though we cannot recreate the enslaved Africans’ experience. So in the spirit of the project, imagine with me: what if recreating the slave quarters to look and feel as it did in the mid-eighteenth century were a priority? A lot would be conjecture, of course. The project leaders might find it difficult to spend time and money installing an exhibit when they knew how much research there was still to be done, but there will always be more research to do. Historic house museums have always relied at least a little bit on conjecture. A few generations ago, many historic house museums were downright fanciful, with highly romanticized visions of the past influencing every element. It would be a shame to let trends toward accuracy hold the museum field back from achieving more authenticity. After all, the purpose of making historic houses accurate is to make them represent the past authentically, isn’t it? Every museum finds a balance between presenting only what they can confirm and presenting their best guesses about the past in order to fill in the gaps in the documented story.
Museums need to take the initiative to tell the stories of enslaved workers more concretely. I don’t fault the Royall House for the fact that the “slave quarters” I slept in for one night was a well-insulated room with a hardwood floor. They have already done amazing work transforming their interpretation into something more honest than it had been. Now, other museums should emulate them but take it a step further. Of course, this work is time-consuming and expensive, so maybe I should be calling on funders and foundations to get on board.  Who is up to the challenge?

 

All images from www.royallhouse.org

What I did… right after my summer vacation

At the start of the semester, I did something I had never done before. I wrote my first computer game, and submitted it to my first virtual game jam. A game jam is a gathering of game developers working on games collaboratively or competitively — they are often held as all-night sessions in person, but they can also run for a longer period of time online, often a few weeks. I was because I have several friends who are game designers or otherwise active in the gaming industry, and for weeks, I had been hearing about a social media explosion called “gamergate.” Essentially, there has been a growing trend in video game culture for audiences to demand better representation of their own diversity and humanity in the games they play. A vocal and violent portion of the demographic that has stereotypically been thought of as the video game audience (white teenage boys and adult men who act like teenagers) object to these efforts. According to them, women, queer people, trans people, people of color, people who are interested in experimental game ideas, and more are “ruining” video games. A friend of mine decided to respond by running a jam called “Ruin Jam” dedicated to “celebrating the nonexistent demise of video games” — responding to the hatred with irreverence and creativity.

A whopping eighty-two games were created and submitted for Ruin Jam! I am very happy for my friend Caelyn, who ran it — it was the first jam she has run and promoted herself — and for those of us who participated, who included neophytes like me and experienced game designers. My game is just a preview of a full-length game I hope to write some day, but I’m pleased with it. I drew from a topic I explored in a paper for Material Culture class last semester, using personal objects to mitigate or sit with the fear of being forgotten. The excerpt of my game deals with a young family commissioning a set of lockets. You can play it here.

So, what’s this doing in my Wider World column, where I write about ways we as museum students can look at museums from diverse viewpoints?

There are several reasons I’m writing about this experience here:

– Games in museums are hot right now! I probably don’t have to tell you that, between the online Gaming in Education conference last week and today’s Lunch with NEMA about mobile games.

– I want to tell you about the game writing tool I used, because you may want to use it yourself! Twine is an open-source tool for writing text-based games, and you don’t need any coding knowledge to get started. You’re not going to create a blockbuster museum app on Twine, but you might create a simple choose-your-own-adventure story for your museum’s website or blog.

– The experience of the game jam was excellent. Some museums are already tapping into creative subcultures, whether it’s by hosting art nights or maker fairs. As inclusive as these events are intended to be, they are often only going to get to small niches of people… after participating in a loosely organized creative event like this one, I’m inclined to believe that’s an argument to have more creative subculture events (online, in museums, wherever!), not fewer. We need diversity and flexibility in order to reach people. I will probably develop my thoughts on creative subculture events at museums in another post, but hopefully, this post has gotten you thinking a little about the topic as well.

The Wider World: How Do You Keep Up?

On my first day at Tufts, when all of the new students were sitting in the sweltering heat in the Gantcher Center, one of the speakers of our matriculation ceremony said to us, “From this point forward, you are behind.” He explained that in academia, there will always be more journal articles we need to read, lectures we need to attend, and so on, and that’s okay, and it will be that way our whole careers. He cautioned us not to get too far behind, but reminded us it is not a sign of failure if we are behind.
Optimistic words.
I find that in the parts of my Tufts life and professional life that aren’t part of “academia,” this may be even more true. Museums are constantly changing, and museum professionals are constantly trying new things and studying what works and what doesn’t.  How do you keep up? Well, I’m not an expert, but I am someone with a bit of practice at trying to keep up, so here are my tips.
  • Decide what you definitely don’t need to spend time reading. In my opinion, a blog post published on LinkedIn is  more likely than not a reach for internet clout on the part of the author, rather than a real contribution to a discussion. That just goes for the blog posts, however; LinkedIn discussion forums can be valuable.

 

 

  • Use social media to your advantage. I am going to scroll down my Facebook feed a couple times a day anyway, so it’s a good way to keep up with what’s happening at museums I care about and museum organizations that are doing cool work. Personally, I frequently find twitter overwhelming because there’s just so much there, but I follow all my favorite museums, NEMA, Museums Re:Blog, and others on Facebook, and then I get the short version of the news as it’s happening.

 

  • Keep track of blogs and other feeds with a feed aggregator (rest in peace, Google Reader). My current favorite is “The Old Reader.” It has the features I like, such as toggling between “show all” and “show unread,” and the option to mark something as read just by scrolling past it. It also has the option of using Spritz, a third-party speed-reading tool that I enjoy using occasionally. “Spritzing” mixes up my reading routine and helps me stay focused rather than letting my mind wander while I skim articles. The makers of Spritz also offer a bookmarklet so you can use their tool on any website; I have found it easier to use on some sites than others.

 

  • Whether it’s news in the field or something you’re reading for a class, it’s always a good idea to pay attention to how you are reading. Simple learning tricks such as reading the table of contents first, and reviewing chapters or sections  that are less important to you by reading the first and last few paragraphs, can go a long way to sorting through the massive amounts of information out there. I strongly recommend the modern classic How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren for an in-depth treatment of these and other strategies.

This post is geared towards keeping up with information by reading, partly because a large portion of media related to our fields is print-based, but also partly because I’m a fairly visual learner, and I’m much less likely to listen to a podcast or watch a video than I am to read a blog post. If you have tips for the audio-inclined, or any other thoughts on how you keep up, I encourage you to share them in the comments.

The Wider World: Design with the Public in Mind

by Tegan Kehoe

Have you seen the news? An activist group in London has begun pouring concrete over metal spikes that deter people from loitering and homeless people from sleeping in certain areas.. As it turns out, the field of designing to influence behavior is a pretty developed one. Designers install all kinds of features to make a space inhospitable to loitering. Some features look formidable, such as spikes and rough metal, but others, such as stone fill and undulating surfaces, are passed off as decorative elements. Some people say all design aims to influence behavior, whether it’s architecture or a mobile app.  

folding cane stool

 

The design choices we make when trying to predict and guide the flow of people in exhibits and other museum spaces are also a form of design to influence behavior, although we may not think of them that way. You don’t put seating in an area where you want people to move along quickly. You make the font bigger when you want to make sure the audience reads something. I think that museum students and professionals could learn a lot by studying how urban planners think about design, to get an better understanding of the choices we make and how to make them.

 

 

First, there are the most direct applications. I work in downtown Boston, an area which has a homelessness problem. Until the city addresses the problem or provides adequate shelter, it’s pretty much a given that people will sleep in the covered stairwells leading into our building and many others in the neighborhood. If I had the luxury of designing a museum building, I would add an overhang with seating and a water fountain on one side, so that people who need protection from the elements overnight don’t sleep in front of doorways. It could even be heated in winter; solar-powered heated bus shelters have been around for years now. It would be a win-win, since we wouldn’t have to clear out the doorways each morning and people in need would be just a little safer and more comfortable. I don’t know if there is a solution that can be appropriately retrofit to our eighteenth-century building, but I’m going to keep thinking.

 

 

Learning from urban planning’s design for behavior can also be done in more creative ways. Museum researchers who do visitor studies look at which visitor spend time where, and with what features. Shouldn’t we all be doing that? This would incorporate a lot of existing knowledge, for example, if you want people to stay, make them comfortable, give them restrooms and seats. It would simply be a new way of looking at what we know and what we want to learn. It’s often valuable to start an exhibit planning process by asking ourselves “What do we want visitors to get out of this?” but shouldn’t we also ask, “How do we want them to behave?” As long as the outcome of this discussion is about supporting and encouraging visitors in good behavior, rather than rearranging the galleries into a panopticon with the guards at the center, I think it’s worth trying.

 

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