Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Serving of Story, History on the Side: Review of the First Person Museum

First Person Museum. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. VICKI SOLOT, executive director; KATHLEEN MCLEAN and ELIZABETH TINKER, museum consultants; METCALFE ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN, museum designers. First Person Arts. November 5-December 14, 2010.
The display tells the story: a pendant artlessly strewn on a living room end table or a baby romper in a dresser drawer under vitrine, illuminated by torchiere or table lamp and flanked by pictures of its owner and a written narrative or video of its personal meaning.  Next to each object, a brightly colored disk with the legend, “A Bit of History,” and a 50-word sketch about the item’s role or function in the past. Welcome to the prototype First Person Museum, making its debut at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia. 
The First Person Museum is a new addition to the First Person Festival of Memoir and Documentary Art, held annually for the past nine years by the nonprofit parent organization, First Person Arts. The week-long festival, the only event of its type in the world, features art based on life experience, including films, exhibits, performance and visual arts. First Person also conducts a series of storytelling competitions during the year.  
The museum, described by its sponsor as a “museum of the people,” consists of 16 objects, chosen for their variety, their meaning to their owner, and the interest of their backstory—not for historic context or other thematic unity.  Content selection was the outgrowth of “story circles” held during the summer at community venues throughout the greater Philadelphia area, at sites such as the Norris Square Neighborhood Project, the Philadelphia Senior Center and the Art Sanctuary. Objects and stories on display at the museum are supplemented by an expanded selection of online and video object stories. The wall text greeting visitors as they enter the casually cozy faux living and dining areas that constitute the display space asks, “What stories does our stuff tell?” and concludes, “Our things and the memories they inspire are not just their own. They reveal what society values. The First Person Museum uncovers the worth of our homes, our things, and our stories….”
And the bits of history? First Person Arts chose to partner with a graduate seminar in material culture at Temple University in Philadelphia (personal disclosure: I’m a member of the class) and with other historians to provide historical context to the exhibit. While initial discussion explored the idea of framing the exhibit in reference to the New Deal and the role of arts in rough economic times, the end result was production of a 50-word historical caption for each display item, along with a series of history-related gallery talks.
Funding sources for the First Person Museum include two $75,000 grants: one from the Heritage Philadelphia Program of the Center for Arts and Heritage of the Pew Charitable Trusts and another from the Engage 2020 Innovation Program administered through the Cultural Alliance of Philadelphia.  The 2010 Heritage Philadelphia grant program was targeted to public history interpretive and planning activities that address “needs and ongoing dialogues of local communities,”[1] while the Cultural Alliance program incorporated a range of concerns, including reaching and retaining new and diverse arts audiences, modeling cultural behavior, and innovative marketing[2].
My visit to the exhibit on a Saturday night coincided with the gallery talk by Julia Foulkes, an assistant professor of history at the New School in New York City. She spoke of the disproportionate magnitude of American consumption, compared to the rest of the world. Much of her audience for the talk consisted of members of the participating neighborhood organizations, accompanied by children and other family members, who had been invited to attend to view their objects on display. She made efforts to engage the audience in considering whether owning fewer, more personally meaningful things is a remedy to excess consumption. I introduced myself to the owner of the cookpot for which I had written the capsule history, who was moved to tears at seeing her cherished family artifact and its story made public.
Ultimately, this exhibit must be understood within the context of the sponsoring organization and its core mission as an arts organization. First Person Arts has outlined the following goals of its museum exhibit, by priority:
1.     Visitors will understand that they endow objects with value.
2.     Visitors will understand that the person and his/her story is the focus.
3.     Visitors will be able to articulate an emotional response to the stories in the exhibit.
4.     Visitors will understand that the meaning of the object is influenced by time, place and experience.
5.     Visitors will think about their own stuff differently.
The organization is devoted to the narrative arts, in its words, “programming that celebrates the personal.” It sees in the personal a way to first find one’s own voice, then ultimately, to link it with others. Public history, by contrast, though broadly defined as the practice of history outside of academia, implies direct and immediate engagement with an outside audience, in pursuit of activities that are specifically historical in nature. The National Council of Public History has described public history as the grounds where historians and “their various publics” collaborate in an effort to make the past useful to the public.[3]
Given the First Person Museum’s passion for personal story, and its hybrid funding sources, it’s not surprising that the exhibit is far more successful as narrative art than as material culture. History here takes subordinate place, to be served up in bits and bytes as an appetizer or side dish to the main menu. Hopefully, the historical captions will serve the purposes of informing, entertaining, and whetting the visitor’s appetite for more substantial fare.   
A suggestion: future museums of the people should have accessibility to those with disabilities. The Painted Bride Arts Center, the customary gallery and performance space for the First Person organization, is a mosaic-inlaid structure tucked away amid the retail and cultural attractions of the revitalized and congested Old City section of Philadelphia, in a configuration that makes building and exhibit access a virtual impossibility for all but the able-bodied. 
There clearly remains room for an exhibit that integrates spoken words, multimedia and history as coequals. Historians, in fact, have a name for first-person story that makes meaningful connections to an overarching historical context: it is oral history, which comes with its own set of strengths and cautions.
In the meantime, if you’re in Philadelphia this month, go see the First Person Museum, but not for the history. Go for the soft-edged charm of this display of household gods, for the poignancy of their stories, to celebrate the singularity and community of the human condition and to seek understanding of the role of arts in regenerating a city with some frayed edges. Then, if it’s history you’re after, pick any one of the city’s many first-rate historical institutions, spend the day, and emerge with a renewed appreciation of the sweeping claim of the past upon the present, and of the public, as well as private, and the enduring, as well as evanescent, significance of our shared story.   

[1]Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. "2010 Grantee Press Release". n.d. (accessed November 15, 2010).

[2] Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. "Engage 2020 Innovation Grants Program". n.d. (accessed November 15, 2010).

[3] National Council on Public History. "What Is Public History?". n.d. (accessed November 15, 2010).