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).

Monday, October 11, 2010

Capping It Off

Here for discussion and dissection are four possible captions for Catalina's pan, one of the objects to be displayed at the upcoming First Person Museum exhibition.

About sancocho
Sancocho is a favorite dish in the Dominican Republic. Simmered  in a cookpot called a cardero, this savory stew of root vegetables and meats mingles flavors of Africa, Spain, France and the Americas. It speaks of the struggle, resourcefulness, community, and rich ethnic heritage of Dominicans, at home and abroad.

About cardero
A cardero is a cookpot used to prepare sancocho, a savory stew of meats and root vegetables eaten in the Dominican Republic. Sancocho’s flavors reflect the country’s diverse ethnic mix—African, Taino Indian, Spanish, Creole. It’s often cooked outdoors on Sundays or holidays and served to family and neighbors.
About generations
This cardero, or cookpot, has passed from grandmother to mother to daughter in a Dominican family.  It holds sancocho to feed a crowd. Sancocho is a savory stew bearing the flavors of the ethnic groups that have lived and struggled on Dominican soil. Will the next generation remember the recipe?
--Gail Friedman
AND, late-breaking history, added after post time. Because I can.

About sancocho (2)

Sancocho, a savory meat-and-vegetable stew eaten throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, means "pig slop" in Spanish.  It may owe its origin to the African custom of keeping  a pot of soup to welcome guests. Or, to the meal made from recycled table scraps fed to slaves.

(Source: Nelly Rosario, “Feasting on Sancocho Before Night Falls: A Meditation,” Callaloo 30.1, 2007, pps. 259-281.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Picture of an Exhibition

This week, I'm turning my gaze from the singular to the entirety, in attempting a design scheme for the prototype First Person Museum. The museum will display a total of 19 objects chosen for their personal significance to their owners, Catalina's pan being but one of them.

The step-by-step path I'm following derives from interpretative planner Alice Parman's instructions in her article, "Exhibit Makeovers: Do-It-Yourself Exhibit Planning," published in 2010 by the American Association for State and Local History. The six main steps are:
  • crafting a mission statement, takeaway messages and storyline
  • organizing the storyline into "chapters"
  • inventorying content and nailing down facts
  • engaging visitors
  • planning the look and feel, the visuals, of the exhibit
  • installation.
I have a concept plan. It's nowhere near architectural scale and leaves a lot, a whole lot, to the imagination, thanks to my limited facility and patience with Google's sketching tools. Here it is.

Now, I'll fill in the dots.

The mission of First Person is to create a people's museum, investing ordinary objects with new meaning through their personal associations.The exhibit incorporates this mission on a visual, design, and ultimately, symbolic level, taking as its theme the common, the green center at the heart of New England villages and their tradition of town-meeting democracy. The message, then, is about common ground, what unites us, and the commonality of ordinary things and ordinary people. Conversely, there is also a shadow side to this pastoral myth, known as the tragedy of the commons, where mutual ownership leads to neglect, overuse and destruction, because when everyone's responsible, sometimes no one is. 

The square area in the center of the diagram is the common, showcasing multimedia to engage the visitor. A revolving kiosk, or bandstand, with pictures of the object owners, their Philadelphia-area neighborhoods and perhaps their home countries, is on the left. To the right are three park benches where viewers can sit and watch a documentary film on the arced screen in front, and a "Welcom to First Person" sign with general information about the museum and the exhibit. The soft background music is Aaron Copland's  "Fanfare for the Common Man." 

The surrounding exhibit space is demarcated in minimalist fashion by raw wood beams connected to outline walls and gabled roofs, creating the impression of rowhouses ringing the common. The interior is a continuous corridor through the six units, each unit set off as a "room" through the use of solid color or wallpaper on the front and back walls. Passage through the exhibit space, the "chapters" of the story, would be leisurely and unimpeded, allowing visitors to explore at their own pace and meander back and forth.

I've adopted the concept of First Person's installation designer to array the objects in domestic settings representing rooms in a house, because I find it a good way to group and provide context for seemingly disparate objects. Rooms include a child's bedroom (baby clothes, dolls, stuffed animals), kitchen (the pan), den (map, birth certificate, passport, fishing license, pen), woman's bedroom (dress, shawl, pendant, sock), formal dining room (sugar bowl, gravy boat), man's bedroom (boxer shorts, t-shirt, ring). The object's story, historic description and a picture of the owner are posted prominently near each item. Some of the clothing could be modeled by stylized mannequins of various hues. A living room, furnished with comfortable settees, is set aside for visitors to record or write their reactions.

In light of  museum consultant Ken Yellis' piece in praise of edginess ("Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars"), I've also toyed with the idea of deconstructing the objects and placing them randomly in combination or at odd angles  in rooms in which they wouldn't typically be found. For example, the fishing license in the kitchen.  Thoughts, anyone?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Food for Thought

This post brings me to the third and final stage in the Prownian method of material culture: speculation. Speculation, asking questions and weaving hypotheses about the social and symbolic worlds of the beloved object, gives rise to observations about its cultural context

Intuiting cultural context in this case involves a paradigm shift. I'd homed in on Catalina's stew pan, her cardero, as the subject of the two earlier phases of my foray into material culture: description and deduction. In seeking to place the pan into cultural context, I've arrived at the conviction that it's about what is contained, not its container.

So, this week's post takes up the role of sancocho in the culture of the Dominican Republic. Why the stew and not the stewpot?

Well, for one reason, I found a far greater range of popular and scholarly interest in sancocho than in cardero. But I'm making the switch not just because the scarcity of material was complicating my efforts to do homework, but because it's the right thing to do. 

Before moving forward, let's take a step or two back to recap. I've recently seen Catalina's written story, entitled "My Family Cardero," that will accompany the exhibit of her pan in the First Person Museum.  It functions on at least two levels.

In one respect, it is story, an emotion-laden narrative about the pan's personal significance to her.  It symbolizes her native country, and the continuation of the female family line through four generations. In another respect, Catalina's personal story is the only documentary history we have of this pan's origin, composition and use.

My inability so far to view and touch the physical pan augments the importance of this written history in contextualizing the pan.  The cardero first owned by Catalina's grandmother is made of aluminum, has four handles, and is used to cook sancocho, which Catalina describes as the "national dish of the Dominican Republic." 

Pictures of carderos supplement this physical description, showing a large, basin-like cooking vessel. Little information is available on the history of the cardero, but several accounts describe sancocho as a potpourri of what is at hand that is transmuted into more than the sum of its ingredients, reflecting the rich ethnic mix of the Dominican Republic, its poverty, and its legacy of slavery.

Which brings us to speculation. Four handled pot, large capacity, composed of aluminum, a good conductor of heat, and used by generations of women to make a stew of root vegetables and several meats that is an iconic national dish. What does this speak of Dominican culture?

Some educated guesses: Food is important, as is family. They are sources of identity. Cooking and eating are communal, not individual, activities. And it is likely that women do most of the cooking. 

But Nelly Rosario's "meditation" on sancocho  says it more eloquently. "Panama and DR are so fractured by conquest, counter-conquest, and re-conquest that their giant sancochos may betray subconscous desire to heal, to reintegrate....," she writes in "Feasting on Sancocho Before Night Falls."

"Dominicans are allergic to solitude and isolation. We immigrate en masse, bringing along family members, even entire neighborhoods. Those who live and eat alone are looked upon with vague suspicion (i.e., a come solo, or 'lone eater' is a pejorative)." 

Buen provecho!

DSCN1484 (scholz) Tags: food cooking recipe dominicanrepublic pot sancocho loscalabazos tagcow

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Pots and Pans Historian

Time was, around a century ago, when historians who studied objects rather than documents were derided as "pots and pans historians" (Material Culture in America, eds. Helen Sheumaker and Shirley Teresa Wajda, p. 419).  Fashions change.

The backdrop to this week's post on historical context, the article, "Object Biographies" by Karin Dannehl, takes pots and pans as the homely subject of an object lesson in methods of material culture. Dannehl's piece pairs biography (story) with life cycle (production, use and disposal) to illuminate the nature of the thing.

Biography is unique, life cycle is common, each matters. The artifact and its paper trail exist in a mutual dance.

Back to Catalina's pan. Absent the chance to see it, I guessed it might be a tortilla griddle, one type of cookware basic to the Hispanic kitchen. Wrong.

Turns out Cat's pan is a cardero, used to make sancocho, a savory stew of multiple meats and root vegetables sometimes considered the national dish of the Dominican Republic. Variations of sancocho are eaten elsewhere in the Caribbean and in Latin America.

I've not yet been able to get a hands-on interview with the pan. It's sad to not have a visceral, elemental feel for the physical object before attempting to relate its context, though this vivid video on making sancocho does something to remedy the lack.

The cardero pictures I've seen online suggest a largish metal basin with handles, the color of stainless steel or aluminum, rather than the black of cast iron. Catalina describes hers as "a heavy aluminum pan that's round and not very deep, with handles on four sides."

As for the cardero's historic context, not a lot to be found there, either, at least from academic sources.  It occurs to me that "cardero" may be the Dominican name for the Dutch oven-type cooking vessel known as a "caldero" in parts of Latin America.  And that it may--or may not--be a descendant of the pottery fashioned by the Taino Indians who once occupied the island nation.

So, for the life cycle of the cardero, I'll borrow from Dannehl's account of 18th-century metal holloware cookpots in England, and simply observe that the cardero has, to this point, been produced from raw materials of indeterminate nature, distributed to a user, and not yet consumed, that is, scrapped or recycled.

The biography of the pan, its singularity, comes from Catalina's backstory, "My Family Cardero."  It originally belonged to her grandmother, who prepared sancocho in it, and was passed down to her at an unspecified date by her mother, after she had asked for it. Her efforts to keep the pan shiny became a running joke in her family.

The history of sancocho is somewhat more accessible. This account of the origins of the dish comes from "Feasting on Sancocho Before Night Falls," by the Dominican-born, Brooklyn-raised writer, Nelly Furtado: 
Culinary author Emma Duprey de Sterling points to the ancestral custom of always keeping a pot of soup, as gift and welcome to any visitor, and as a way of recycling table scraps to have at one's disposal when hunger strikes. A bleaker, commonly held belief about sancocho's origins points to the days of slavery, during which there was surely little difference between the table scraps thrown to the troughs and what was tossed aside to the slave quarters.
Maybe the museum exhibit should be recast as Catalina's Sancocho.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Imagining Catalina's Pan

This week's post was supposed to have been a physical description of Catalina's pan. Art historian Jules David Prown, in his essay "Mind in Matter," a how-to guide to the study of culture through artifacts, sets description as the first of three steps in analyzing objects created or altered by people.  (The next two are deduction and speculation.)

Problem is, due to technical difficulties, I haven't been able to see the pan. So, I'm making a judgment call and will imagine Catalina's pan as a comal, a specialized cooking utensil sometimes described as a tortilla griddle and used in Mexico and other Hispanic countries.

The reasons for this are fairly simple. Catalina is a name with Spanish roots, and she is scheduled to present her pan for photography Friday at the Ayuda (means "help" in Spanish) community center, which serves the Hunting Park neighborhood in North Philadelphia. Perhaps this choice reveals cultural bias on my part; Prown's method is designed to filter it out. 

Comales come in various shapes and sizes. A cursory search of food and cookware websites suggests that they are usually made of cast iron.  I'm guessing that Catalina's pan is not new and has been in her family for a while, since comales are often considered heirlooms.

The imagined comal is made in one piece of heavy black cast iron. Casting iron, briefly, is a process in which iron melted in a furnace is poured into a mold. See "You Can Cast Iron"  by Steve Chastain for do-it-yourself instructions.

The dimensions of the comal are: 16 inches long by 10 inches wide and 3/4 inch high. A six-inch handle with a hole in it is an integral part of the pan. A raised lip runs around its circumference. Its surface is glossy with cooking oil.

Comales on the website cost in the range of $11 to $15.  A comal that has been passed from mother to daughter and can be used to warm tortillas, toast spices or sear meat--priceless!

A picture of a comal is below.  Stay tuned next week as we discover the real Catalina's pan.