Tuesday, March 20, 2012

We've moved to "History@Work"!

You may have noticed a pause in activity here at "Off the Wall" in recent weeks.  We haven't gone out of business--we've just been busy as part of the recent effort of getting the National Council on Public History's new multi-author, multi-section blog, History@Work, ready to launch.  Now that it's officially in operation, you'll be able to find new "Off the Wall" reviews there on a regular basis. The latest one is Zach McKiernan's first "Letter from Chile," a sobering account of how sites of memory are playing a role in resisting repressions that are all too reminiscent of the dictatorship of the 1970s.

The launch process for History@Work has been a rather "soft" one, and we'll be continuing to add new functionality and to tweak the design in the coming months.  We hope you'll visit us there, subscribe to receive regular postings, and perhaps weigh in with comments (or even a proposal for a guest post).  We're happy that "Off the Wall" has become a part of what we hope will be a vibrant mix of ideas and discussion about what's happening in the field and beyond!

~ Cathy Stanton, Editor

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Where the universal present meets the personal past: "The Wilderness Downtown"

For most of us, music videos don’t immediately bring to mind historical engagement. What’s more reflective of the current epoch than a viral YouTube video featuring feline euphony or Rebecca Black’s ultra-present-focused “Friday”?

But Arcade Fire’s “Wilderness Downtown” collaboration with Chris Milk, featuring their hit 2010 single, “We Used to Wait,” is a remarkable exception to this rule. Chris Milk’s interactive video, a “Google Chrome experiment,” got some significant buzz in tech  and advertising circles after its release, but why should it interest public historians?

This interactive video is essentially an exploration of personal nostalgia, providing a bridge between childhood and the present through the wonders of Google street view. There have been some notable digital history projects in recent years that work with this feature, enabling users to superimpose historical views on the present or even overlay multiple historic maps on a given geographical region. But this video gets directly to the emotion of the matter by enabling users to plug their childhood addresses into the video’s algorithm, generating scenes from the places where they grew up as the music evokes a ever-more-distant past when, “we used to wait for letters and sign our names.” At the end of the video, viewers are given the opportunity to “write their childhood selves a letter” using a remarkable digital paint program that turns their words into branches and floods the scene with birds. This evocative moment concludes a “trip” through the universal present and the personal past.

In The Presence of the Past, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen conclude that our personal histories provide the strongest, most present connection to the past, providing a gateway for broader interest. When I began the process of reviewing this video, beyond my initial “Oh cool!” first reaction, I asked some friends and family members for their thoughts. My brother, Micah Langer, a 21-year-old almost-college-graduate provided a wonderful personal analysis: “Arcade Fire seems to really speak to a generation of people who grew up in between spaces--in the suburbs and edge cities of North America. Growing up in such places, at least for me, it is easy to feel adrift and disconnected from the rest of the world. Perhaps those are universal growing pains, but I think the anonymity and uniformity of suburbs amplify them. It's interesting how the video gives one a bird's-eye-view of a town or a school, places that seemed to be the beginning and end of the world during our childhoods. Seen through a wider lens, one sees how these places fit into a bigger picture. It is an exploration and elaboration of the dizzying nostalgia and disorientation one might feel upon dialing in their sentimental places on googlemaps, and it's somehow comforting to realize that you aren't alone with that feeling.”

I think it’s that notion of not being alone with this fascination with the personal past that makes this video particularly resonant. It’s a useful reminder for public historians that the place we start when we explore history is inevitably our own backyard. 

~ Adina Langer

Monday, December 19, 2011

A New Paradigm for Institutional History?: Looking at the Smithsonian Archives’ New Website

The Smithsonian is, of course, not the only institution associated with the federal government that maintains an archive about its own history. The National Park Service, for example, has made a substantial investment in documenting the histories of its parks. The Park Service's institutional histories, however, generally exist on a park-by-park basis while the Smithsonian's efforts are more centralized. For the Park Service, this allows for great diversity in its histories. It also means, though, that few people will access the information contained in them. Indeed, most of these histories are for park staff and NPS administrators, not broader public consumption—although some, like Seth Bruggeman’s Here, George Washington Was Born, reach a somewhat larger academic audience when published as books. With the launch of its new website, the Smithsonian Institution Archives points toward a new era of accessibility and engagement for institutional archives.

 When I first visited the Smithsonian Archives almost a decade ago, the reading room and staff offices were located in the Arts and Industries Building (above)--the original home of the United States National Museum. A far cry from its heyday in the late nineteenth century, the building had been emptied of exhibits and collections, and everyone kept telling me that the ceiling was going to collapse. Still, it was a thrill to be working in this historic structure, especially since I was researching a dissertation on the history of cultural exhibitions at the Smithsonian. From a comfort and convenience standpoint, however, it was less than ideal. There was nowhere to get lunch--I usually ended up eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the Hirshhorn sculpture garden--and the reading room was cramped. Consequently, I was pleased when, a few years ago, the archives moved to a newly constructed building a couple of blocks from the Mall. What this shiny, climate-controlled office building lacked in character, it more than made up for in creature comforts.

Now the Smithsonian Archives has a new website to match its new home. Happily, with its digital presence, the archives has not had to sacrifice character for comfort. In fact, the new site does a much better job than the old one of highlighting the services available for researchers and showcasing materials from the collection. Simple, clean, and user-friendly, the website also features the extensive institutional research that archives staff, volunteers, and interns have done. The value of this website, however, may go beyond practical concerns. It just might suggest a new paradigm for institutional history.

Unlike NPS's mostly internally-oriented histories, the Smithsonian's new website is geared towards engaging a broad audience of online users with its content. On the homepage are links to a blog, discussion forum, featured exhibits, and a section called "Today in Smithsonian History." Perhaps most interesting is the extent to which the institution has embraced the interactive web in creating this site. For example, the current front page features a link to the Smithsonian's photostream on Flickr, which displays rare photographs from the Scopes trial. (These photos were discovered by a volunteer researcher at the archives in the records of the Science Service and published in Reframing Scopes: Journalists, Scientists, and Lost Photographs from the Trial of the Century.)

And from a social media perspective, the website is a gold mine, with lots of fascinating things to tweet and post to Facebook. Given the prominent social media logos on the homepage, this was clearly a major topic of discussion in the development process. As someone who is always looking for interesting content to disseminate to my students and others, I appreciate this focus on sharing. The deeper question, however, is whether a website focused on sharing institutional history with a broad audience will be successful. Or, to put it more bluntly, does anybody (other than a relatively small group of public historians and museum professionals) care about institutional history?

Anecdotal evidence points strongly to the fact that people like to go behind the scenes at museums and historic sites--to pull the curtain back on the processes that go on in collections storage facilities, exhibits labs, and staff offices. Therefore, maybe the Smithsonian Archives’ new website will encourage more people to take a peek behind the curtain and begin to think critically about the ways in which history, culture, and science are packaged and presented by institutions such as the Smithsonian. And, maybe they’ll have some fun doing it.

~ Will Walker

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Participatory Mapping: Place-Making as Process in Montréal’s Mile End

Maps are more than pieces of paper. They are stories, conversations, lives and songs lived out in a place and are inseparable from the political and cultural contexts in which they are used.   (A. Warren, cited in Giacomo Rambaldi, "Who Owns the Map Legend?")
Places resonate. They are keepers of stories and avenues for remembrance. As the Mile End mapping project demonstrates, community place-based projects offer opportunities to give shape to the past, outline the present and envision the future.

Home to 24,000 residents, the Mile-End boasts eclectic architecture, locally-owned businesses, vibrant streetscapes and a diverse population mix of ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews, Greeks, Portuguese, Eastern and Southern Europeans, university students, creative types and émigrés from France. Increasingly, African, Asian and Latin American immigrants to Montréal are settling there as well. While fears of gentrification and the sanitizing properties that accompany it have been raised cyclically since the 1970s, today the Mile End remains the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in Canada.

Since 2007, the artist and volunteer storefront collaborative articule in Montréal’s Mile End neighborhood has drawn attention to the area’s arts organizations and creative spaces by producing a biannual community art map. Last year, spurred on by activist artist and articule outreach coordinator Coco Riot, the group added a twist to their initiative. They began by asking questions like, “Who decides what is and what is not art?” “What makes the Mile End a creative place, particularly friendly for artists?” “How do we add residents’ daily improvisations in space to our definition of artistic vitality in the neighborhood?”

These questions were explored in a series of community map-making workshops. They were coordinated by local, grassroots groups and individuals--Pied Carré (a nonprofit neighborhood collective dedicated to preserving affordable artists’ spaces in the Mile End), Bricolage urbaine (a newly-formed group dedicated to urban education and community action around urban planning issues), subjective cartographer Emmanuelle Jacques, civic initiative Ouvert/Open and Les Amis du Champs des Possibles, a volunteer-run environmental group focused on preserving green space and biodiversity in the neighborhood. A local sixth grade teacher devoted a month of classroom time to the initiative.

Large, colorful and productively chaotic, the twenty or so maps produced by more than two hundred Mile End residents throughout the series of workshops were exhibited at articule in October. These participatory maps engage history in different ways. A group of former residents of the neighborhood returned to their old stomping grounds to participate in the activity, to reminisce and to affix their memories to a map. Their finished product offered useful and interesting historical data, showing the regularity with which each mapper had moved within the area in childhoods marked by residential displacement in a city of renters, the community’s hubs and boundaries, the fault lines to be negotiated with “outsiders” and “others” and the spaces and institutions that have endured, lending character and stability to a dynamic, diverse community.

One group of urban explorers spent a few hours walking the brownfield site along the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks. They gathered and displayed over 30 different kinds of plants, historic evidence of decades of plant migration due to the transcontinental train route. Another map explored railway rights of way by asking people to use thumb tacks and cue cards to map out their routes and crossing spots along the CPR train tracks, which until recently were accessible to pedestrians but have since been fenced off.

For strangers who made maps together, conversation led to sharing of intimate, personal histories as well as discussion about the area’s most treasured historic buildings and significant places. The map became a process for meeting neighbors, finding points of convergence and drawing shared meanings of place. While some items appeared random – like the running ground of abandoned cats and the best people-watching site in the neighborhood, they reflected a spirited and detailed conversation.

Sixth graders made a series of transparent, overlapping maps that documented historic sites, memorials and monuments as well as traffic flows, bike paths, locally owned business – even the architecture of surveillance through security cameras and locked gates. They claimed their neighborhood, pinpointing graffiti, which they designated either pretty or ugly, “secret passages” and other information known and recognized only by residents of an area.

Riot reflected that the project both documented and created community, adding that the completed maps will be archived in a library for research and community access. Citing it as a strong start to what is hoped to be the first of many mapping initiatives, Riot was heartened by the response.

The process helped organizers identify strategies for wider community involvement and begin to ask, if not answer, tough questions about a problem that confronts most local, participatory initiatives in economically and culturally diverse neighborhoods -- the finished product represented a narrower historical and lived experience of class, culture and ethnicity than the neighborhood itself reflects.

In the first year, participation was dominated by, though not limited to, residents who identified as “belonging” in the Mile End, those who felt comfortable coming to a new place for an event and who had the free time and energy to attend. While diverse linguistically and in age and nation of origin, they were generally middle class and not new immigrants.

Riot is eager to apply lessons in place-making to widen participation. Addressing the practical realities of diversity in their neighborhood, organizers are locating spaces of regular interaction and engagement amongst all residents as sites to hold future mapping activities. They are also working with interested representatives from Hasidic and new immigrant communities to figure out the nuts and bolts of their future involvement in community mapping.

Perhaps the transparent, layered maps made by middle school student participants can be a model for the future of the project. As in any diverse urban neighborhood in the 21st century, there simply is no one map of what it has been or what it will be. But by getting a wide array of residents to create many maps, and by finding ways to look at them together as parts of a complicated and ever-changing whole, articule is poised to develop a model for participatory place-making that acknowledges difference while locating and fostering spaces of convergence.

~ Margo Shea

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Toynbee Tiles: Viral exhibitry from the pre-Internet world

The Toynbee Tiler's main style, in Philadelphia's Center City.
At its heart an exhibition is a display of objects, grouped together by a shared theme, style or message, and designed for public consumption. In the award-winning 2011 documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, four men from Philadelphia search for the creator of an idiosyncratic series of public art pieces that, in its consistency and repetition, can be seen as an exhibition.

While the film plays out as History Detectives for hipsters, the story is compelling. The tiles have a central, cryptic message that invoke historian Arnold Toynbee and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick:

“Toynbee idea
In Movie 2001
Resurrect Dead
On Planet Jupiter"

The Toynbee Tiler has been prolific, installing his pieces since the 1980s in the asphalt of urban streets from his home base in Philadelphia, across the Rust Belt, to South America. The tiles defy explanation, though they have the stylistic consistency of a single artist. While the basic message doesn’t vary, he adds, at times, addenda and marginalia that range from mentioning the USSR to critiquing the media.

While the film is fascinating on a variety of levels, one of its most poignant aspects is the way the filmmakers create a portrait of the unknown Tiler. Through interviews and by tracing clues scattered in the tiles, newspapers, and minutes of an esoteric organization, they suggest that the tiles were primarily a means of communicating a public message in a pre-Internet world. Today, the Toynbee Tiler would have an easier time writing a blog, but the film shows his attempts to use other methods to find an outlet and audience for his message, from ham radio transmissions to calling in to talk radio shows. These strategies were small and inconsequential, and he found himself blocked by corporate media control of the airwaves.

City street as faulty archive: remnants of a decaying tile.
His response? An exhibition of public street art, curated against asphalt grids, through the creation and placement of a series of tiles carved out of linoleum and adhered to the street with tarpaper.  (To try this tiling technique yourself, check out the tutorial from Make magazine.) The ultimate ephemerality of the pieces as they erode under years of traffic renders them less archive than temporary exhibition. While the message of his tiles is unsettling--including one known as “The Manifesto” that disturbingly veers into anti-Semitism--the audacity of it as exhibition practice is intriguing.

Of course, in the age of the Internet, interest in the tiles has only grown as scattered individuals who had seen a tile in their city became aware of their spread. Interestingly, contemporary art groups have incorporated the tiles into their own street art. House of Hades, one of the more prolific of these collectives, creates their own tiles that critique the media, adopting one of the Toynbee Tiler’s favorite themes while purging it of its more unsavory aspects. Such approaches preserve the formal qualities of the tiles while effacing much of the haunted affect inhering in the obsessive repetition and syntactical unhingement of the originals. Connected today with a street art culture derived from graffiti and expressed in ways that strategically repurpose public space (for example, in the images of artists like Banksy), the contemporary tilers’ method is necessarily different in meaning from the Toynbee Tiler.

Other artists adopt the tile technique for less ambiguous messages.
While it seemed that he utilized his unique exhibition method for lack of other options, today’s street artists reclaim public spaces as an explicit means of countering corporate dominance and its ubiquitous expression through advertising. Like the tiles, today’s street art injects mystery into the public sphere, making familiar territory unfamiliar and altering perspective but its purpose is much more knowable. It aims to challenge power while also sending a message--a DIY ethos shared by the contemporary craft movement and quite different from the solitary statements of the Toynbee Tiles.

Not only are the messages themselves quite different, they are now received by more jaded eyes. For instance, many people leaving a screening of Resurrect Dead in Philadelphia admitted that they first assumed the tiles were either a student art project or a viral marketing campaign. Changes in technology, meaning, and modes of dissemination since the 1980s have gutted the semiotic landscape in which the Toynbee Tiles first appeared, leaving us more knowing about these kinds of visual languages but also perhaps nostalgic for the more truly mysterious affect of the Tiler’s exhibits. While contemporary modes of cultural signification build off his techniques, they also make impossible this kind of unknowable world created by a singular vision.

~ Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

Easily missed at 9th and Walnut, this small tile's ambiguous message can be read as step one of an instructional series or a plaintive expression of solitude.

(All photos are by Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Reality of Fiction in Post-Pinochet Chile: Los Archivos del Cardenal

I have been traveling to and from Chile for various reasons at various times since 2005, acquiring a deep appreciation for the country and its cultural subtleties and social mores—to say nothing of a Spanish accent steeped in Chilean slang.  But if I have learned anything since my initial days, it is that one must exercise sensitivity when approaching the dictatorial past.  On my most recent flight here, for example, I found myself especially mum when engaged by a well-dressed, middle-aged Chilean woman about my upcoming adventures.  Instead of revealing my true intentions—a year’s worth of historical research related to human rights and memory—I reverted to the tourist line: surfing, senderismo (trekking), and sun.  And we continued our conversation concerning Chile’s naturally beautiful landscape, not its unattractive past, maintaining the unspoken but readily recognizable veneer aimed at keeping the dictatorial past contained to the quiet corners of private, personal conversations rather than something to be discussed openly with strangers on airplanes, public transport, or other places where class and political lines may cross.  
That is why I was particularly pleased with the recent release of a new mini-series—Los Archivos del Cardenal—on Chile’s national broadcast channel, Televisión Nacional de Chile (TVN).  The series, consisting of 12 "chapters," takes cases collected by the Vicaría de la Solidaridad under Cardinal Raul Silva Henríquez during the dictatorship and reproduces them for public consumption.  For those not in the know, the Vicaría, an organization of religious and lay Catholics, as well as non-believers, was arguably Latin America’s most active, if not high-profile, human rights organization during the 1970s and 80s.  It worked to protect Chileans suffering from Augusto Pinochet’s persecution by offering legal, medical, moral, and financial help, as well as establishing numerous national and international networks of support.  It is no secret, then, that the Vicaría is intimately linked to human rights activism and, moreover, that it has created an archive that documents crimes against humanity. 

Neither is it a secret that Los Archivos is a fictitious account of the past, however based in and inspired by the actual Vicaría.  Nicolás Acuña, director of the show, has taken the sensitive subject of dictatorship and exposed it through the commonplace medium of public television—to the chagrin of some and championing of others.  In a conversation with Acuña, I learned that among those who supported the creation of the show—a group that includes former Vicaría social workers and Chile’s first transitional president, Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994)—are historians and other academics who helped with the series’ stories.  Acuña, born in Chile in 1972 and raised in exile in Sweden after the coup, wanted to create an “historical document that pays tribute to Vicaría workers,” something that he feels fell through the cracks during the center-left Concertación governments between 1990 and 2010.  

The careful avoidance of Chile's tumultuous past has made itself felt in both opposition to the show and the creators' caution in approaching stories of resistance.  Senator Carlos Larraín voiced the conservative response when he said, “The series takes events that occurred exactly 40 years ago, but with an obvious political connotation: the left as victim, and this is what gives fans the fire to act politically with a certain amount of superiority” (author's translation).  Moreover, Acuña told me that to attract more viewers (or put fewer off), the team “couldn’t play too much with the theme of human rights.”  This, then, is why the series is also laced with racy scenes of love and has, well, a fictitious feel of a “police-investigative series.”  
But in an interview on Chile’s popular 24hrs, Acuña and actor Francisco Melos also spoke of the responsibility to show, despite the hardships of dictatorship, that people still lived, loved, drank whiskey, and laughed.  Thus, the debate that is circulating in op-eds, public discourse, the political circus, and my circle of friends, revolves not only around the usefulness of fiction versus history, but the reality of present and past politics, to say nothing of the demands of TV as a dramatic form.  Meanwhile, for the first time on public television, open references that damn the dictator(ship) are flashing across millions of Chilean screens.  

However, even if the (political) line between the Vicaría’s history and the fiction of Los Archivos is unclear, what is clear are the paralyzing scenes of torture, daylight disappearances, and the discovery of human remains in hidden graves.  Too, the series is not short on uncovering moral motives and struggles.  In one particularly moving scene, Chileans are invited to muse on the moral compass of a torturer of the country’s infamous National Center of Intelligence (CNI) as he returns home from work to stroke the cheek of his sleeping son.  As a viewer, I find that these images send shivers down my spine, a response that combines the emotive, the moral and the political. Moreover, and especially important, I think, is that for the interested and/or skeptical, follow-ups and fact-checking of each “chapter” can be cross-referenced to the “real” or “archived” case vis-à-vis a project directed by the Universidad Diego Portales.  There is also the option of visiting the Vicaría’s successor organization, La Fundación de Documentación y Archivo de la Vicaría de la Solidaridad (pictured above), to continue the historical inquiry.  

Approaching the past in post-dictatorship Chile is no easy task. From fictional crash-course lessons on public television to more established forms of memory-making through museums and memorials, any entranceway into Chile’s painful past is significant—and controversial, given the national and international public attention and debate that Los Archivos has generated in interviews, articles, and reviews.  As historian Steve Stern recently suggested while speaking at the “Memories in Construction” seminar at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Los Archivos is another step in the "materialization of memory in the physical-cultural landscape of a new generation of Chileans too young to have a direct remembrance of the dictatorship."
Los Archivos, like other films and television based on history, raises the question: when (or) is it useful to fictionalize the past?  Or can fictionalized history serve a special purpose when approaching sensitive issues such as crimes against humanity?  Whatever your answer, in Chile, for better or worse, the “materialization of memory” of such crimes for today’s generation is taking root in the form of Acuña’s “historic document”—a collaborative but careful effort that is more loyal to the past than it is faithful.  Yet, despite this reality of fiction, I look forward to what I hope is a not-too-distant future when my airplane conversations can focus on Chile’s physical-cultural landscape, not just its natural beauty. 

~ Zachary McKiernan

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

History, history everywhere

 On my walk from the commuter rail station to Tufts University the other day, I was struck by a kind of instant stage set or living history environment or nostalgic theme park created by an organic food delivery truck trailer parked behind the Porter Square Shopping Center in Cambridge.  The owner of the company and his mom were both featured on the side of the trailer, not an uncommon strategy for organic and family/local food producers as ways to differentiate themselves from more anonymous or purely commodified supermarket food.

What made this really interesting, though, was the fact that the back of the shopping center is itself painted with heritage-oriented murals depicting various periods of the neighborhood's existence.  Images of the mansion, cottages, and gardens that pre-dated (and were torn down to build) the plaza decorate the architecturally undistinguished back view, along with portraits of neighbors and some generic "olde-tyme" street views.

And more interesting yet, for the purposes of thinking about how historical materials, narratives, and knowledge are encoded in contemporary landscapes, is the plaque historicizing the murals themselves.  

This blog is devoted to reviewing historical exhibitry in an age of "ubiquitous display," and this kind of landscape of instant/casual/under-the-radar documentation and memorialization is exactly what we mean by "ubiquitous display."  If someone had happened to ride past on a vintage one-speed bicycle while I was standing there taking pictures, my day would have been complete!

~ Cathy Stanton