Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Developing a Participatory, Provocative History Project at a Small Museum in Minnesota: Interview with Mary Warner


Earlier this year, I was fascinated to read the account of a participatory project at the Morrison County Historical Society in Minnesota, in which community members were invited to write essays about “what’s it like” to have various life experiences in the County. One of the invited participants—the one who inspired the project—is a young transgender person. Mary Warner, the Museum Manager at the Historical Society, wrote a series of moving articles for her museum newsletter and later for the AASLH’s Small Museum Online Community about her experiences tackling big issues in a small museum. While the articles focus on the controversy around GLBT representation (which is fascinating), I was curious to learn more about the project itself.

I called Mary to learn more about this brilliant example of a small museum thinking in big and courageous ways about community participation in local history. For context, the Morrison County Historical Society has four paid staff members and engages about 2,000-3,000 visitors per year.

How did this project get started?

Like most of our projects here, it’s a case of organic development based on our mission, which is Morrison County history. We on staff have always had the sense that we want to collect the histories of people who don’t have their histories collected that often – to have a representative sample that’s not just the famous people or the rich people.

For example, we’re interested in GLBT and Jewish histories in our County – how do we get those stories? How do we get the history of the poor? We’re an actively collecting museum, and we’re always thinking about how we can take an inclusive approach with the artifacts and archives we collect.

But how did this specific project get started?

We had a board member who kept asking us to do oral histories. We on staff have so much to do, there are only four of us, and we know oral histories are so labor-intensive. We’ve done a few; I’ll interview someone for a specific reason for an article or to add to a file. But we wanted to do something a little more formal to capture more.

It’s sort of weird how it happened. We have this board member asking for oral histories. And then my son’s friend--I knew he was transgender--and so I wondered, if I do an essay project, would he write one for me? The whole “what’s it like” theme was based on him.

So did you start by approaching your son’s friend to see if he would participate?

When I start a project, I like to first get it into a written form that anybody can follow. That’s a habit for our volunteer projects – we have to figure out how are we going to communicate what we want from participants. So I put all the forms together first. And then I went to my son’s friend and asked him if he would he write an essay, and he did.

Why did you decide to collect essays as opposed to digital media, perhaps video or audio?

I think part of writing for us – we do this all the time – if there’s a web source, we will print it off and add it to the archive. We struggle with how to save digital media. If we do an essay project, it’s the written word, we can print it out and save it and it will be here in a hundred years.

A lot of museums start this kind of project with big intentions, but then they really struggle to get participation. I was impressed by how much success you’ve already had in capturing essays—not an easy thing to do. What did you do to recruit or encourage participation?

Well, our goal is 100 essays, and we’re not there yet. We have about 25 now. But it’s the kind of thing we need to keep pushing, and we haven’t in a while.

We went to the genealogy group, and a whole bunch of them submitted. I think one person may have submitted something directly on the web, but mostly these are solicited. You have to remind people, keep reaching out. It takes constant reaching out, and reminding. Not everyone feels confident about their writing. It would be a great thing to take into a school and do but we haven’t done that yet.

How did you decide to translate the essay project into an exhibition?

Whenever we are creating content, we like to use it in a variety of formats. We have two permanent exhibition galleries and then a long hallway that we use for a special exhibition that lasts about a year. We try to cycle artifacts and really milk all the content we create through exhibitions, our newsletter, on our website, and in programs.

So we decided to do the essay project, and then our curator said, hey this year let’s do our essay project as the exhibit.

So we pulled objects from our collection to connect with the essays. In one case, someone wrote an essay about being a newspaper boy, and he had already donated his newspaper bag.

How did you select which essays to turn into exhibits?

Really, it was about which stories we had good objects for. We didn’t ask people if we could exhibit them, but when we were explaining the essay project, we explained that the essays would be used. Most people know that if they are donating their stuff to the museum, it is going to be used – in the newsletter, on the website.

Where did the interest specifically in GLBT history come from? What kinds of conversations did you have with staff and board members about the potential touchiness of the issue?

There’s a history with the GLBT community with people not being out for the good share of our history, and then there’s a recent turning point, but we still have GLBT folks in our history – we know that about them, but how can we write about it now?

We didn’t discuss anything about the possibility of negative reaction, even though we know that the dominant attitude in Morrison County is anti-GLBT. It was just: here’s this essay project we’re going to do, and we have this inclusive attitude, so of course we’re going to collect this history. It’s ok. We’re going to do it.

The only time we had to really deal with it was when we experienced two incidents of blowback. One woman came in on a tour and said, “why are you displaying that?” I told her if we didn’t show that story, we would not be covering our history.

Once I had talked to the lady and told her this was where we were coming from, she thanked me and told me that she and her husband were going to talk about it and think about it. We’re not trying to change minds, but we do want to encourage people to go ahead and think about what you see.

And then there was the anonymous letter. It was pretty clear that this letter came from someone who was not already part of the museum. That letter didn’t come until after we’d talked about it in our local paper. We had published the same article in our newsletter and we didn’t hear a peep.

One of the things that came up in that anonymous letter was the person questioning whether it was “history” to talk about someone’s contemporary experience. Is that something you’ve heard other feedback about with this project?

Actually, we’ve heard it before. A few years ago, we had a music exhibit, and we put a cellphone on exhibit because there are ringtones that go with cellphones. A lot of people were engaged by it, but they also were confused about why it would be in the museum. We are interested in contemporary collecting, so we do it, and we are constantly educating people that current history is history too.
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