Monday, March 7, 2011

Hen House History: No Harm, No Fowl

I am obsessed with a chicken coop.

On a long and poorly charted road trip this past summer, I wandered into Lake Solano Park campground, located on the quiet banks of Putah Creek just off California Highway 128. The campground is on land originally populated by Patwin Indians, then homesteaded in 1875 by Daniel Tucker who managed a cattle and sheep operation and quarried limestone from local hills for area building foundations. Teeming with wild peacocks (legend holds they were brought in to manage the rattlesnakes), the campground proper was established by the Bureau of Reclamation (“B of Rec” in local-speak) in 1973 and is currently managed by Solano County Parks.

Two sturdy bird houses stand in the large and open campground, near the public showers, one on each side of the narrow road. Open on three sides but fully enclosed in wire—presumably to keep the objects in and the humans out—one coop held the expected collection of birds. For a quarter dropped into a gumball machine, both the tiny Silkies and uncaged visitors were briefly entertained by a handful of cracked corn. Just across the campground road is a second coop (a “hen house” in local-speak). Contents: a miniature museum. Thus began my obsession with this surprising and out-of-the-way staging of local history.

I spoke with Duane Davis, just-retired from Solano County Parks after 35 years of service as Ranger Supervisor, and exchanged emails with his wife, Leslie. Both were graciously helpful and patient with my many questions and emails. The structures alone have an interesting story as told by Mr. Davis.

“The present day Hen House evolved from a smaller enclosure. A nearby neighbor learned of the park theme and donated a few birds along with historical farm equipment from the local area and barn wood for other displays. The campers and their children liked the addition. The first birds were attacked by a bobcat one night and witnessed by the nearby camp host. Attempts were made to strengthen the enclosure and roof the pen. More birds were donated (Chickens and Doves) by the same source and Guinea Hens by myself. Various campers donated money, food and wire. That summer a horde of large rats got under the wire and were found dining on unhatched hen eggs. A concerned camping family made a large money donation. I copied the enclosures design after one at the Sacramento Zoo. Volunteers, Sheriff inmates, and park staff built what you see today, I think in 2000 or 2001.”

“Sheriff’s inmates”? Now this is getting interesting.

Lacking a larger county agenda, the Hen House was a labor of love by proud, local people. Haphazard and humble, it appears almost accidental. The barn wood used for the structure and featured objects within the structure came from the “old Hubert ranch,” though being a stranger in their country, I could not appreciate the significance of the Huberts. The tiny display housed a limited and dusty collection of objects, unlabeled and without contextualization. A small sign provided a frustratingly meager amount of information.

I am an admitted museum snob. I like things tidy, well-organized, with lots of in–depth information and well–placed wall boards. Hen House had none of these. So what was it about this display that spoke to me—that stopped me in my tracks? Is this a new and unique development in public history? No. Is this a critical component of public history? Yes. Because of its very simplicity, this casual accumulation of objects invited curious engagement. What was this stuff behind the wire and where did it come from? How was it used and by whom? What were the complexities and humanity of those lives? How did time move forward for the people but not for the objects left behind? Can the intimate history of person:possession ever be recovered?

Absent formality or sophisticated scholarship, these homespun efforts may provoke sniffs from professionals. The Hen House museum obviously lacked the staffing and skills of trained curators and historians found at “real” museums. But the formality of access to these museums--location, hours, admission fees, rigorous professionalism--engenders a preemptive contract with visitors to engage the exhibit in a certain way. Historical museums, just like the news, or a textbook, or even People magazine--any venue in which information is delivered--necessarily stage knowledge in a factual and linear way, privileging particular information above other information (theme and scope management), providing the visitor with carefully crafted intelligence understood by the majority of the audience to be sum total fact.

Michel Foucault, in his 1980 essay, "Power/Knowledge," speaks of the State creating and manifesting power by controlling the production of and access to knowledge. While formal museums and informal historical displays are not in gladiator–like combat with each other, the point can be made that local (capillary) knowledge legitimately augments knowledge as a whole and can challenge State–crafted margins of truth. Despite its informality, the low-history of the Hen House importantly redraws these margins of “proper” and “sanctioned” knowledge, touching people in ways that formality cannot.

The Hen House created an opportunity in which I was forced to craft my own set of critical questions that I may not have done at an exhibit where information is carefully constructed for efficient visitor consumption. The failure of the Hen House to explicitly speak to the hidden meanings and history of its objects was, in part, its success.

~ Anne Coogan-Gehr


  1. Posted on behalf of Chris Matthews:

    Thanks Anne for this discussion! As a commentator, I normally look to locate and point out flaws or ways to think differently and more productively about how museums and public history are considered in reviews like yours. However, in this instance you reveal something substantially important that is too often neglected and thus leads me to write a different sort of commentary.

    In most cases we travel "coast to coast" in critical public history: what is the subject (the starting line) and how it is presented (the finish). We dwell on how subjects are selected for recognition, ensuring that a "George Washington spelt here" narrative does not lie simmering in the collective unconscious of the curators or celebrate when the subaltern makes its appearance. And we have drafted 1000s of pages on processes, mechanisms, constructs, audiences, and results of the displays that act as our usual subject matter.

    I think you have done the unusual by finding a way in the "heartland", if you will allow me to continue the analogy. The hen houses seem almost spurious, as just something to do since there is time and space to do it. They are neither about why they were made nor what they seem to be now. While I may be essentializing the anthropological pursuit, I think this is the space where the "culture" we seek to record is going to be found. Instead of the conscious makings of public history we discover in museums, books, tours, and historic and cultural sites, you have found an example of people doing something informed by but not because of history.

    Perhaps what you have found is more zoo or art than public history. The birds and the hen houses seem almost to be "found objects" pieces, thought his is not what they were intended to be. However, this thinking reveals more about my struggles with received categories than the hen houses themselves, which remain what they are despite any efforts to define them.

    Maybe the best thing to do is to situate this example alongside others. I am reminded of Mark Dion's Rescue Archaeology (, Jim Deetz's In Small Things Forgotten (1996, Anchor Books), and Kathleen Stewarts' Ordinary Affects (2007, Duke). In Deetz and Stewart we see objects at work but only because people need and have them around to work with, not because they are trying to tell us anything. Dion pushes from the other direction, pointing out how hard we work to make things speak in certain voices, when, in fact, as objects they are multivalent and work well in multiple media and cut across the categories we use to make the world.

    Thanks again Anne for bring this place into view and without defining what we actually need to see.

    ~ Chris Matthews

  2. I'm still wrestling with the meanings or non-meanings (or anti-meanings?) of the hen-houses myself, in much the same way that you talk about, Chris. I can't let go of my intellectual certainty that all texts, objects, and exhibits do reflect agendas, values, and political positionings, and that there's usefulness in bringing those to the surface, even when (or especially when) they are most deeply buried, as I think they are here. And yet I also feel a kind of relief in suspending that critical operation in this case, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's just good to be reminded of the whole universe of historical display that simply isn't connected to the professional circuits in which most of us operate? Maybe that's a move toward true multivalence, as you seem to be suggesting here.