49 posts categorized "author-Kathryn Pyle"

'The House on Henry Street' Exhibition (Part 2)

September 13, 2018

Yesterday, in the first installment of a two-part series, Kathryn Pyle explained how the new "House on Henry Street" exhibition came about. In part two, she talks to the people behind the project about the unique challenges they faced in trying to distill a hundred years of social work and history into a cohesive experience.

HSS_Intro panel"Given our limited resources and the small space, we realized that any attempt to describe the significance of Henry Street Settlement in the late nineteenth century and show its relevance to our time meant that it had to be a multi-platform project," historian and curator Ellen Snyder-Grenier told me when I met with her earlier this summer. "On-site displays of artifacts and text could only tell a limited story. We decided that short films could round out the history and a website could expand the exhibit, breaking down temporal and space limitations."

Keith Ragone, the exhibit designer, recommended creating a 450-square-foot gallery from two smaller rooms on the first floor of the agency’s original townhouse and then "extending" that physical space through the clever device of having two windows looking out onto a late-nineteenth-century streetscape.

Ragone and his collaborators were familiar with the extensive trove of still photographs from that era and selected a number for the exhibit and website, but they also wanted to incorporate moving images into the display. Snyder-Grenier's research led her to the Edison Company films collection at the Library of Congress.

"I was flabbergasted by the extent and scope of the collection," she told me. When she discovered the three-minute film New York City 'ghetto’ fish market, she knew she had found the key element for their "view from the windows."

Another surprise was the Visiting Nurse Service of New York Film Collection, a digitized archive housed at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. The collection includes two hundred VNS promotional films, the earliest made in 1924. Lillian Wald herself appears in one from 1927; it’s in the exhibit and is embedded in a graphic timeline on the website that takes the visitor from the 1910s into the twenty-first century.

Cantos/ New Dances (1957) is a short film featuring the work of choreographer Alwin Nikolais, who established his dance company at the Henry Street Playhouse, later named the Abrons Art Center. Nikolais served for two decades as the artistic director of the center.

"Culture and the arts have been important from the beginning, and the Abrons Art Center has presented some of the most influential artists of our times," said Susan LaRosa, a marketing and communications officer at Henry Street for the past eleven years. "It was important that we acknowledge that, and the Nikolais film highlights one of our pivotal figures."

Another short film, commissioned for the exhibition, Baptism of Fire, tells the story of Henry Street, its place in the social reform movement, and of Wald herself, who saw health care as a right and established the model of visiting nurses in response to the dire conditions that prevailed on the Lower East Side in the early part of the twentieth century. Wald went out of her way to celebrate the distinct cultures of different immigrant groups, rather than trying to force on them an "American" identity, and was also a suffragette, helped found the National Women's Trade Union League and the NAACP, and involved herself in many other progressive issues.

"We wanted to create an atmosphere in the exhibit that would take visitors back to that era but at the same time reduce the distance between past and present," said Snyder-Grenier. "The films help create a more visceral connection to the past and convey a sense that these were real people. They also help to bridge differences in a way that Lillian Wald would have appreciated."

In addition to film, the team considered using other interactive digital tools. But cost and space were limiting factors, and, as exhibit designers have learned since digital tools became widely available, sometimes less is more.

"It's difficult to pack lots of screens and interactive tools into a small space," said Snyder-Grenier. "Plus there would be an issue of competing sounds. We wanted to create an ambience related to the outside world of the Lower East Side in the front gallery section, and to the inside, domestic world of the settlement in the second gallery area, showing all the people who have created and sustained Henry Street Settlement. So even with more funding we wouldn’t have added more digital tools or material objects. The space itself, with the original fireplace and baking oven from its time as a tenement residence, is already an artifact!"

LaRosa agreed. "The exhibition will bring the humanities, in addition to our services and programs, to our broad constituency. People will learn about their roots, their history. The exhibition, with all its varied components in the gallery and in the community, will make people think. It adds another dimension to what we do."

After my initial conversation with LaRosa this spring, I decided to visit the nearby Tenement Museum to learn more about the era depicted in the exhibit. I selected the "Sweatshop" tour, which takes visitors to a turn-of-the-century Jewish family's tenement apartment, replicated in minute detail. Somewhat unbelievably, the small living space at one time also functioned as a workplace, with the family producing piecework for the city's burgeoning garment industry. According to the Museum at Eldridge Street Synagogue, the vast majority of Jewish immigrants to the U.S. at the turn of the century, most of them from Eastern Europe and Russia, settled on the Lower East Side, making it, for a time, the most densely populated place on Earth.

Today, Henry Street Settlement, the Tenement Museum, and the Museum at Eldridge Street Synagogue honor that history while connecting it to the people who call the neighborhood home: the descendants of immigrants who came to America in the early twentieth century in search of a better life, as well as more recent arrivals from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and China (with Chinatown adjoining the traditional Lower East Side and supporting its own Museum of Chinese in America).

HSS_Work ExpandsDigital tools have enabled museums, historical sites, and cultural centers, in the U.S., and around the world, to share their collections and curated exhibits far beyond their walls while enriching the experience of visitors. "The House on Henry Street" project demonstrates what is possible when service and educational NGOs and their funders recognize and find ways to share the fundamental story at the heart of their ongoing work: how they have supported their communities over time and what history can teach us about how we got here.

"Now more than ever," Henry Street executive director David Garza told me, "we must be aware of our North Star on issues of social justice, inclusion, race, equality, and the welfare of the most vulnerable among us. Through this exhibit, our history serves as the ultimate point of reference in defining our values, not only as an organization but for society as well."

"The House on Henry Street" exhibition (free to the public) officially opens to the public September 17. Visitors to the museum-like exhibit at Henry Street Settlement (265 Henry Street) on New York City’s Lower East Side will see artifacts from the late 1800s, panels of photos and text tracking the agency's history, and the Edison film of nineteenth-century street life, which animates one wall. Visitors are welcome, Mondays through Fridays, 10:00 a.m.– 6:00 p.m. The exhibition website (www.TheHouseonHenryStreet.org), also scheduled to go live on September 17, invites virtual visitors on a walking tour and enables them to view images from the exhibit as well as excerpts of the films.

Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. Check out her other posts here.

'The House on Henry Street' Exhibition (Part 1)

September 12, 2018

HHS_entrance signThe first time, eleven years ago, Susan LaRosa, then a new marketing officer, pulled opened a cabinet drawer in her office at Henry Street Settlement, she discovered some forgotten letters written by the agency's founder, Lillian Wald, and early twentieth-century New York City civic leaders Louis Abrons, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Jane Addams. The existence of the letters wasn't the surprise — LaRosa knew Wald had attracted many influential New Yorkers to her project. But the discovery made her wonder whether Henry Street's remarkable history was adequately preserved and what lessons that history might have for the present.

The questions her discovery sparked eventually proved to be the catalyst for a new exhibition, opening September 17, that explores the legacy of community through the story of a remarkable institution.

When I learned earlier this year about the upcoming exhibition and its designers' plans to include documentary films, a particular interest of mine, I decided to reach out to LaRosa to learn more about how the exhibition came to be.

Founded in 1893 by Lillian Wald, Henry Street Settlement, located on the Lower East Side of New York City, was one of hundreds of settlement houses that sprang up around the country in the late 1800s, primarily in cities with large, impoverished immigrant populations drawn by the huge demand for labor in a rapidly industrializing United States.

Settlement houses soon became a feature of the Progressive Era, a period of widespread social reform that understood poverty as primarily a social phenomenon rather than a failure of individual character — a distinction that continues to generate debate in our time. Settlement houses typically offered some combination of social services, recreation, education, job training, health care, and arts and culture, all geared toward helping lower-income working people, particularly immigrants, improve their living conditions and economic opportunities. There were once more than four hundred such houses around the country, and many still operate as community resource centers.

With its roots in Wald's original mission to provide visiting nurse services to the indigent on the Lower East Side, today's "Henry Street" serves sixty thousand people at seventeen neighborhood sites and thirty public schools with social services, education, and health care programs, and operates the Abrons Arts Center. A century ago, Wald mobilized support for the agency from wealthy supporters such as Abrons, whose family was among its first clients and whose descendants have continued their involvement with Henry Street up to the present.

"I soon realized the building was oozing with history," LaRosa told me recently as we sat in Martin Luther King, Jr., Community Park behind the Henry Street offices; the space includes a rain garden, part of the organization's green infrastructure program. "I kept finding things that seemed important to preserve and make accessible to the public. But we're a working social service agency, not a museum or historical society. We didn't have the staff time or budget to even pursue a book idea."

LaRosa couldn't get the notion of preserving Henry Street's history out of her head, however, and eventually she realized that a special program would be a nice fit with the agency’s 125th anniversary in 2018. She consulted with Sally Yerkovich, a nonprofit administrator who had worked at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and, with Yerkovich taking the lead, they developed a project inspired by people who, on a regular basis, have some connection to the history of the neighborhood and stop by looking for a tour of Henry Street and to learn more about the settlement house movement in general.

"When we decided to approach the NEH, our executive director, David Garza, was completely supportive," said LaRosa, who (with Yerkovich) dedicated a portion of her time to mobilizing the necessary human resources. The NEH approved a $40,000 planning grant, and the Sun Hill Foundation provided additional support in the form of a $20,000 grant. Ellen Snyder-Grenier, an historian and curator, and Keith Ragone, an exhibit designer, along with other experts and a panel of historians, signed on to the project.

"Even before we got the NEH grant, we began reaching out to our stakeholders, including ongoing funders like the Sun Hill Foundation," Garza told me. "These are relationships that go back decades, and there was an immediate expression of interest."

"The House on Henry Street" concentrates on the humanities aspect of Henry Street's work, engaging the surrounding community with materials in English, Spanish, and Chinese, as well as scholars interested in the Lower East Side, women’s issues, urban history, social work, and nursing.

With Snyder-Grenier, humanities scholars, media designers, and fabricators in place, NEH subsequently approved an implementation grant of $360,000 for a project manager, an exhibition designer, an evaluation expert, and a public historian. (The rest of the exhibition’s budget is still being raised.)

"The House on Henry Street" includes a permanent historical exhibit; an interactive website (www.TheHouseonHenryStreet.org); a walking tour; a series of public programs; a book; and other components. The public programs were launched this spring, while the other components will be rolled out over the next few months.

The permanent exhibit at 265 Henry Street, the organization's main office and its first headquarters, includes photos, film, artifacts, and interpretive text that tells the story of Lillian Wald and the creation of Henry Street Settlement within the larger context of the Progressive Era and the settlement house movement.

"The exhibit focuses primarily on the late 1800s and early 1900s, the period that best illuminates the factors that led to the settlement’s creation and the movement in general," Snyder-Grenier told me. "Our project scholars advised us on the various issues that surfaced in this time period: immigration, women's rights, labor, rising poverty, and more — as well as the history of the Lower East Side."

Created, as were the exhibition's media elements, by Bluecadet, "The House on Henry Street" website takes the exhibition beyond the townhouse and into the present, with photos, expository text, digital images of artifacts, and a curriculum for high school and college teachers. (The site also features a short commissioned film, Baptism of Fire, and several archival films.)

Based on extensive research and polling of current Henry Street clients, including seniors and ESL students, public historian Katie Vogel created the content for a mobile walking tour app featuring Henry Street Settlement locations and relevant neighborhood sites, enabling participants to learn about the history of Henry Street while learning more about a dynamic, modern social service agency.

The public component includes a series of lectures, discussions, food tastings, and other events, some of them organized in partnership with the nearby Tenement Museum and the Museum at Eldridge Street, while portraits of more than a hundred people who have had a special engagement with the agency are featured in "Humans of Henry Street," an informal series of photos, filmed interviews, and quoted material. Last but not least, a book (LaRosa's initial idea) will be published later this year and will include historical texts, images, and a bibliography for those interested in doing further research.

As LaRosa told me, the evolution of the project is a story of challenges, creativity, and choices.

The first challenge was figuring out how to focus the exhibition. There's a lot of history to tell, and not just about the origins of Henry Street. There's also the history of the Lower East Side, which in the late nineteenth century was home to immigrants from Germany and Ireland who, as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, were joined by legions of newcomers from Eastern and Southern Europe. And there’s the history of nursing, one of the very first professions open to women, and the critical role nurses played in the well-being of immigrant families; Lillian Wald herself was a nurse, and a pioneer in the field.

In the end, as I'll explain in my next post, the designers were able to do justice to all that history through the judicious use of twenty-first century exhibition tools and aesthetics. Stay tuned!

Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. Check out her other posts here.

NMAAHC and the Museum of the Future

August 07, 2017

In my previous post, I shared details of a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, during which I had the opportunity to meet with Rhea L. Combs and Jon S. Goff of the museum’s film and photography program. With the help of Combs and Goff, I also was able to connect with a number of staff in related areas and quickly came to appreciate that another important dimension of NMAAHC — really, the key to its identity — is technology and the way, today, it has been integrated into exhibition design, audience engagement, and the extension of a museum's programs beyond its walls.

Nmaahc_separate-but-not-equalThis includes things like interactive exhibits, touch screens, livestreaming of events, and much more. As I visited  various galleries, for example, I encountered an impressive number of items, many of them digitized; the museum is committed to sharing the majority of its collection with the public rather than keeping it in storage. I was also struck by how all the exhibits I saw were beautifully enhanced by digital technology, including one wall of objects that delighted a group of teens as they took turns touching images and uncovering additional information on everything from baseball memorabilia to pop culture couture.

In Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age (78 pages, PDF), former secretary of the Smithsonian G. Wayne Clough notes that the institution has committed to digitizing millions of objects in its collection and anticipates that the initiative will make the collection more accessible in ways we can hardly imagine.

As Clough explained in a 2013 interview on Smithsonian.com: "In the past, the creative activities were entirely behind the walls of museums and collection centers. The public only got access through labels in exhibitions, which told them what we thought. Now, in this new world…, people are going to be engaged with us in a conversation, not a monologue."

Museums established prior to the digital age have had to rethink their collections and reconfigure space to accommodate these developments, but NMAAH's long lead time has been an advantage in this regard. Although Congress voted to establish the museum in 2003, African- American veterans of the Civil War first proposed the idea for a museum devoted to the African-American experience in 1915. Founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III, whose career as a historian and curator includes several previous Smithsonian positions, arrived in 2005 with a staff of two. (The museum employs nearly two hundred people today.) The museum itself didn't open until 2016, but Bunch and his small staff launched its first program in 2007, embracing technology and partnering with other Smithsonian museums, including the National Museum of American History (which hosted the photography show I wrote about in my previous post), in 2009.  

In a Smithsonian magazine article marking the museum's opening last fall, Bunch elaborated: "Rather than simply plan for a building that would be a decade away, we felt that it was crucial to curate exhibitions, publish books, craft the virtual museum online — in essence, to demonstrate the quality and creativity of our work to potential donors, collectors, members of Congress, and the Smithsonian."

 "Black Culture and History Matter," an article by folklorist Kirsten Mullen in The American Prospect, emphasizes this point: "The NMAAHC is the first major museum to 'open' on the web before its physical structure is even built."

A PND On the Web profile of the museum earlier this year praises its "standout" website; director Bunch credits early support from IBM for the site. (IBM has contributed more than $1 million to the museum.) The PND profile notes that the site allows visitors to access collections and exhibits, and highlights a section for educators, a mobile app, and the Many Lenses initiative, which features staff at several Smithsonian museums discussing personally selected objects in their respective collections.

With thousands of objects, programs, and exhibitions to manage, the museum has done a marvelous job — and should be credited — for the amount of material  already on display and the many points of access to those materials provided to the public. Even so, as I consulted the website for information on the museum's many areas, projects, resources, and exhibitions, I sometimes found it difficult to navigate the volume of information. (To help readers of this article, I've included links throughout.)   

Even before it opened, NMAAHC could take advantage of the Transcription Center, the Smithsonian-wide project mentioned in my previous post. In his 2013 interview, Clough anticipated a future in which a museum would "crowdsource its research," an experiment the Smithsonian had just launched with the center. Fully operational now, the center has mobilized a corps of nearly nine thousand digital volunteers from all over the world who have transcribed more than two thousand projects using their own computers and broadband connections. The volunteer transcriptions are reviewed by center staff and then posted on the Web, where they can be accessed by researchers and the general public.

Laura Coyle, collection manager and head of cataloging and digitization, tells me that since the museum joined the transcription initiative in 2015, thirty-four collections or items in the NMAAHC project have been transcribed. As an example, the James Baldwin collection, with a hundred and twenty-four pages of material, was completed thanks to the efforts of forty-three volunteers.

Another project is focused on indexing and transcribing the archives of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, which was created by the U.S. government after the Civil War to address the problems of the four million formerly enslaved people and hundreds of thousands of impoverished white people living in the South; there are nearly two million letters, reports, contracts, and other documents related to administration of the bureau. Preserved by the National Archives, the materials are now being made accessible to the public. NMAAHC’s "Freedmen’s Bureau Project" includes a partnership with FamilySearch International, which has indexed the material to capture names and dates, allowing people to search for ancestors. With the assistance of the Transcription Center, the museum also is in the process of transcribing bureau documents.

 "So far, we've made available all thirty thousand records of the Assistant Commissioner for North Carolina," Coyle tells me. "And we're continuing to process and prepare the remaining records for transcription and will eventually make available the entire Freedmen's Bureau collection online and through the Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center at the museum."

In addition to the transcription work, NMAAHC has created at least a minimal digital record of all thirty-seven thousand items in its collection — photographs, documents, and artifacts. To date, more than eight thousand images are available online via the Collection Search page. And later this year, the museum will expand access to its film and video collection (which at the moment is only available via YouTube), making it viewable directly through the museum's website.

"Because so much is possible through digitization," says Coyle, "it makes all the other things we do possible: our website, our prints and publications, our exhibits, our mobile access. And we were able to do everything right from the start."

I ask Coyle, who has a degree in art history and worked at the National Gallery of Art and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington prior to joining NMAAHC in 2010, if her education and experience prepared her for the opportunities, and challenges, of the digital age.

"This job did not exist when I was in school," she says. "Museums started using digital tools to manage collections when personal computers became widely available in the nineteen-eighties. With the advent of the Web in the nineties, museums realized they could share their collections and stories digitally, but no one was quite sure how to do this. We just couldn't imagine all the ways digitization would be a part of our lives.  Now, of course, actual and virtual visitors expect museums to offer a variety of digital experiences. But we still don't know what the digital museum will be in the future. NMAAHC was committed to digitization from the start and remains committed to the digital museum concept, wherever that takes us."

Coyle tells me that when she came on board, "It was just me working in this area. Everyone was focused on building the collection and building the building."

Today, her staff of nineteen includes specialists in cataloging, record creation, rights and reproductions, digital assets management, and photography. Rounding out the "Digi Team" are the five media digitization and preservation staff working in the Digitization Media Center. All together, the team produces catalog records and images for internal and public platforms; reformats audio-visual materials; manages digital materials and intellectual property rights related to collections; responds to requests for collection information; and oversees publication projects.

"My team is a service organization within the museum," Coyle says. "We work with the curatorial team and participate in the creation of digital content for various platforms. That's essential for online and traditional exhibitions, collection research, and publications." For instance, of the nearly twenty-five thousand photographs in the museum's collection, a digital archive of more than sixty-three hundred photographs is now accessible through the website.

But keeping up is a challenge. "Digitization is time consuming and costly," says Coyle. "At this point, only 25 percent of the museum's collection is well cataloged, imaged, and online to the public — our definition of fully digitized. And we're continuing to collect, so digitization will always be a little behind. Cataloging is also an ongoing process and we can always add more information. People expect a lot in this area, so we want to meet the demand as much as we can."

Meanwhile, demand is growing. In the first three months of this year, for instance, 319,000 people visited the museum's Collection Search page. "We know that people are searching our collection online" says Coyle. "And we'll be collecting more analytics to learn more about what visitors do once they get there."

The Digi Team also manages the Collection Stories feature on the website, where NMAAHC staff are invited to share their response to an item in the permanent exhibits. Coyle chose the dress worn by Carlotta Walls ("Dress for the Occasion") on the historic day in 1957 when Walls helped integrate an Arkansas high school as one of the "Little Rock Nine." An image of the dress, digitized along with related photographs and documents, appears there and is also available through Collection Search.

"That dress made a mighty impression on me," Coyle tells me, "and I was really honored to meet Carlotta Walls LaNier, who donated the dress to the museum."

Collecting the Collection

One of the defining qualities of NMAAHC is its process for acquiring material. Collecting began a decade ago, and director Bunch has described the task of starting a collection before a museum even opens in various interviews. In a 2016 Washington Business Journal article, he shared some of the details of his own family history, what led him to become a historian, and some of the experiences that helped shape his vision for the museum.

"I thought the best thing we could do," Bunch said in that interview, "was to use African-American culture as a lens to understand what it was to be American. This was not a museum for black people by black people. It was a museum for resilience, for optimism."

He then related a story about the first item received by the museum, the result of a serendipitous meeting with an Ecuadoran man, Juan Garcia, who subsequently donated a canoe seat carved a century ago by his great-grandmother, who lived in a community of escaped slaves — an encounter that impressed upon Bunch the presence and history of Africans throughout the Americas.

"That artifact helped me frame the museum as a global museum, not just an American museum," he told the Business Journal. "That was transformative for me."

But not all items came to the museum that serendipitously. In the 2016 Smithsonian.com article mentioned above, Bunch shared the concerns he felt in those early days.

"Maybe it was the curator in me, but what worried me the most was whether we could find the stuff of history, the artifacts that would tell the story of this community," he said. "Some of the early plans for the museum de-emphasized artifacts, partly out of a belief that there were few to be collected and technology could fill any void. But I already knew that even if you have the very best technology, a tech-driven institution would fail. People come to the Smithsonian museums to revel in the authentic."

Bunch reflected on his experiences, over his career, with "community-driven collecting," including reaching out to African-American families and securing gifts "over a cup of tea." And he spoke eloquently of the urgency he feels to find and preserve these artifacts.

"I believed that all of the twentieth century, most of the nineteenth, maybe even a bit of the eighteenth might still be in trunks, basements, and attics around the country. I also knew that as America changed, family homesteads would be broken up and heirlooms would be at risk. We had to start collecting now, because the community's material culture might [not] exist in ten years."

With support from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the museum created "Save Our African American Treasures," a program designed to appeal directly to communities and surface those forgotten items stashed away in attics and trunks while at the same time educating people on how to preserve family photos, documents, and artifacts. That approach continues, although as the museum's staff has grown to include professional curators, the approach to curation and the collection has shifted.

At the same time, the stories of Naomi Long Madgett, the poet who donated the films of Rev. Jones to CAAMA (see my earlier post), and Carlotta Walls LaNier, who donated her dress, are echoed over and over in the larger collection. While many items in the NMAAHC collection have been purchased, many more have been donated by people whose fervent desire is to see the preservation of their family history.

According to Michèle Gates Moresi, supervisory curator of collections at NMAAHC, the vast majority of the items in the collection have been donated. "I don't have a current count of the total number of people who have donated artifacts to the museum," she said in an email exchange, "but last summer, when we organized a special event for object donors, we had a list of more than sixteen hundred." An estimate of the value of all the artifacts donated does not exist, but the donated material is quite possibly the museum's most valuable asset. In addition, many individuals have stepped up with monetary donations; as of the end of the first quarter, the museum had a hundred and sixty thousand charter members, some who had given substantial amounts, and many more who had donated what they could.

(The generosity of donors is a consistent theme in studies of African-American philanthropy. A recent PND article points out that "African-American households tend to give more of their discretionary income — as much as 25 percent more — to charitable causes than white Americans; that figure increases as African Americans move into the ranks of the wealthy.")

A Great Convener

In Lonnie Bunch's interview with the late Gwen Ifill shortly before the museum opened, the PBS NewsHour co-anchor, in reference to a series of racial incidents around the country, stated, "We are at a crossroads in our country." Bunch agreed with her characterization and expressed his conviction that NMAAHC could play a positive role in moving forward as a society. 

"Our job is to create a space that, through dialogue and exhibitions, can make America better," he added. "We expect this to be one of the most diversely visited places in the U.S. In surveys, 75 percent of white Americans said this is a story they want to know as well. I hope this museum will continue to evolve, continue to change, because it really has to be a place that is the great convener."

Since I attended my first NMAAHC exhibition (the 2009 photography show I mentioned in my earlier post), I've been looking forward to seeing the finished museum. Even at a time when interest and scholarship about the African-American experience has flourished, it has not always been easy to learn about that history and culture. NMAAHC redresses that gap; its film and media programs in particular are reaching audiences on a deep emotional level, and the integration of technology in almost every aspect of its operations has greatly enhanced its impact. The museum's collection and the way it is presented affirm an African-American identity, as was always the intention. But the museum also succeeds brilliantly in advancing the mission crafted by its founders and articulated by Bunch: "To tell the story of America through an African American lens."

Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. Check out her other posts for PhilanTopic here.

National Museum of African American History and Culture: ‘The Story of America Through an African-American Lens’

July 25, 2017

NMAAHC_gettyOn a very cold, very sunny March day, I make my way down the National Mall in Washington, D.C., walking from Union Station to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the newest addition to the Smithsonian Institution complex. I am going to talk with Rhea L. Combs, NMAAHC’s curator of photography and film, about its media arts program. In 2009, I attended and wrote about an early exhibition organized by the museum, "The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise." The photography show was held at the museum's then-temporary base in the National Museum of American History. NMAAHC moved into its own building on the Mall in September 2016.

As I approach the museum from the south, I am treated to a dazzling view of the museum's facade. I've seen photographs of the building with its three tiers of filigreed metal wrapping all four sides of the glass-walled structure, forming what its architect calls an "outer corona," and the bright sunshine reflecting off the building's surface this morning truly suggests something fiery.

Inside, school groups and other visitors pack the lobby and are lined up on the subterranean floor waiting for their tours to begin. NMAAHC welcomed its millionth visitor in February and is expecting six million by the end of year.

The museum has been the subject of many articles, from its award-winning design (see Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times) to its often challenging and emotionally moving exhibits (Vann R. Newkirk II in The Atlantic). The museum's mission was summed up by founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III in an interview on the PBS Newshour with Gwen Ifill a few days before it opened to the public: "This is the story of America through an African American lens." Appropriate, then, that in this post and the one that follows, I will focus on the museum's photography and film program and the donors who made it possible.

Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA)

Before catching up with Combs, I have time to walk through the second-floor gallery of the Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA), which she directs.

As stated on the museum's website, CAAMA was created to "explore the formation of African American history and culture through media arts, including photography, film, video, and audio recordings." The center's holdings and offerings encompass photographs, film, and video; in-house publications; public programs; a resource center; and a digital archive. Some of these components are already in place, while others are in development or being refined.

Continue reading »

‘Justice Matters’ and the Power of Film to Persuade

June 12, 2017

JusticeMattersEach year, Justice Matters, a special series within Filmfest DC, the annual Washington, DC International Film Festival, shines a spotlight on some of the best new social issue films from around the globe. This year, three of the films were judged outstanding by jurors and audience members.

Filmmakers throughout the history of the medium have felt the need to address injustice, poverty, and other social concerns, prodding audiences to reflection and action, a tradition that continues today. As Filmfest DC founder and director Tony Gittens noted in launching Justice Matters in 2010: "What better city to highlight this tradition than our nation's capital, the vortex of ongoing debate on how best to further democracy and equitable treatment for all." And what better time than the present.

I was happy to catch the Justice Matters 2017 program during this year's festival in April. I had attended Justice Matters in 2012, highlighting 5 Broken Cameras in an earlier PhilanTopic post and was eager to see this year's selection of films, especially The Good Postman, an intimate story about the flood of Syrian refugees into Europe set in Bulgaria, where I'd lived for two years.

This year's lineup included eight award-winning films that explore some of the most pressing challenges of our time and some of the most creative and courageous responses to those challenges: corporate corruption (150 Milligrams); corrosion of public trust and the need for a free press (All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone); the privatization of public education (Backpack Full of Cash); refugee integration (The Good Postman); the crisis in Syria (Last Men in Aleppo); and climate change (Tomorrow). Two of the films mined the past for lessons and inspiration: one a personal recollection of the U.S. invasion of Grenada (The House on Coco Road); and a musical quest set during Freedom Summer (Two Trains Runnin’).

(All the films should be available in other festivals, theaters, broadcast, or on the Internet. More information about each is on the Justice Matters site and/or on the films' websites.)

Jurists for the series included Conrad Martin, executive director, the Stewart R. Mott Foundation and executive director of the Fund for Constitutional Government; Montré Aza Missouri, founder and director, Howard Film Culture; and Kathryn Washington, director of diversity and innovation at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Continue reading »

The Art of Memory

September 18, 2015

PhilanTopic is on vacation this week. While we're away, we'll be sharing some of our favorite posts from the last year or three. This post was originally published in October 2010. Enjoy.

Earlier this month, in Buenos Aires, closing arguments were made in one of the legal cases brought against the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983, the period of the so-called Dirty War. The case, referred to by the names of the three clandestine military centers ("Atlético-Banco-Olimpo") where 181 victims were detained, is one of hundreds that have been opened since the amnesty laws that protected members of the military from being prosecuted for crimes against humanity were struck down. The trials are open to the public, and the courtrooms have been packed by families of the victims and citizens interested in a resolution to this painful episode in the country's history.

Architecture, sculpture, and painting; music; film and video; poetry, drama, prose -- all have been employed to tell the tragic story of a people's loss and pain after similarly brutal episodes in the past. The arts are fundamental to the process of memorialization.

In Argentina, the process has included myriad plaques and other expressions of remembrance and remembering. At the national level, a group of ten human rights organizations gained the support of legislators in 1998 to establish the Park of Memory on the banks of the river that forms the country's northeastern boundary, the Rio de la Plata, and construct the Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism. In short order, an international competition to commission additional sculpture and a visitors center for the park was launched.

Continue reading »

What a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak Can Tell Us About Our Stewardship of the Planet

October 07, 2014

Audobon_passenger_pigeonOn my morning walk the other day, I happened on a small bird in obvious distress lying on the sidewalk. Apparently, it had flown into a building and injured itself – or that's what staff at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education said when I called them to see what I could do to help the poor thing. Rick Schubert, director of wildlife rehabilitation at the center, said the bird was probably migrating south, since it didn't sound, from my description, like a bird that was native to the area. Schubert went on to say that migrating species of birds established their migratory routes long before cities were a feature of the landscape and that they are not particularly good at navigating around tall buildings.

Soon enough, the bird died, and I was overcome by grief – not just for the little voyager that never made it to its destination, but for the precarious state of all our birds. As I learned from the Audubon Society's Audubon Birds and Climate Report, which was issued last month, half of all North American birds are severely threatened by climate change.

One of the most dramatic illustrations of the phenomenon can be seen near my home in Philadelphia. The rufa red knot, a bird smaller than a robin, migrates more than nine thousand miles every spring from the tip of Patagonia to the Canadian arctic, and makes the return journey every fall. The birds time their three-month trip north to arrive at the southern Jersey shore for the horseshoe crab spawning season; the abundance of food enables them to double their weight in preparation for the remainder of the journey north. Sadly, horseshoe crabs were overfished for bait in the 1990s, and that has resulted in a 70 percent drop in the rufa red knot population. Better crab harvest management since then has stabilized the declining bird population, but according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the red knot is "particularly vulnerable to climate change."

Continue reading »

Flaherty Film Seminar Celebrates Its 60th

June 20, 2014

Flaherty_seminar_60The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary with a week-long program at Colgate University featuring forty-five short and feature-length films and video installations created by filmmakers from the U.S., Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Many address the conflicting needs for security and transparency in the modern age.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York will be showing eleven films from the program over the next week, plus two films by D.A. Pennebaker and his wife and collaborator Chris Hegedus in an opening-night event on Saturday, June 21. The films were selected by MoMA assistant curator Sally Berger and this year's Flaherty Film Seminar curators, Caspar Stacke and Gabriela Monroy. 

The MoMA series includes films by Shaina Anand, from Collaboration Around Micro Politics (CAMP) in Mumbai,India; moving-image artist Duncan Campbell, who is based in Glasgow, Scotland; and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, a member of the Raqs Media Collective in New Delhi. All are artists who explore "new aesthetic idioms" in documentary filmmaking while focusing on possibilities for democratic renewal in the contemporary global economy. The three filmmakers will show clips and discuss their works on Monday evening, June 23, as part of the series.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1972, Duncan Campbell represented Scotland at the 2013 Venice Biennale  with his film It For Others, "a social and historical examination of cultural imperialism and commodity" that will be shown at MoMA on Sunday, June 29, and has been shortlisted for the Turner Prize, which recognizes new directions in contemporary art and is organized by the Tate Gallery in London.

Earlier this week, I talked with Campbell about his filmmaking process and some of his central artistic concerns.

Continue reading »

Documentary Film and Gentrification (Part 2)

April 15, 2014

(Kathryn Pyle is a documentary filmmaker and a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. Click here to read part one of this two-part series.)

Poster_holding_groundIn my previous post, I wrote about a handful of documentary films that explore the phenomenon of gentrification. In this post, I'll consider urban redevelopment in a broader sense – with the pressure coming not only from private developers but from city government and, in some cases, endowed institutions with agendas of their own.

Over the past decade, the Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia has offered a variety of programs designed to build the media skills of community activists. Through its Precious Places project, for instance, Scribe has provided video production support to nearly seventy organizations looking to record the stories neighborhood residents have to tell about the buildings, public spaces, parks, landmarks, and other sites that define where they live. The series has been broadcast on WHYY and screened in film festivals and community settings around the country.

A number of Precious Places films focus on the eroding sense of community in urban neighborhoods. Two of those short films address the value of green space and community-based arts and, in the process, challenge public policy assumptions about "redevelopment."

Featuring sixty local gardeners and other residents. La Mott Community Garden (2011) tells the story of a two-acre community garden located just outside the city line adjacent to La Mott, the oldest historically black community in Pennsylvania. Part of a larger twelve-acre parcel deeded to Temple University in 1939, the garden has served the community for more than eighty years. At some point along the way, Temple built the Tyler School of Art on part of the property, leaving the garden intact. But when a new facility was constructed for Tyler on Temple's main campus in 2009, the entire parcel was put up for sale. With support from Cheltenham Township and the Conservancy of Montgomery County, the La Mott Community Garden Group is attempting to save the garden and has requested that Temple donate the garden to the community under a land trust agreement or set a fair market price for the property so it can be purchased by the community. Both options have been rejected by the university, and negotiations are at a standstill as gardening season approaches.

Continue reading »

Documentary Film and Gentrification

April 07, 2014

(Kathryn Pyle is a documentary filmmaker and a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her previous post, she wrote about the promise and failure of humanitarian aid in Haiti.)

Urban_gentrificationThe phenomenon of gentrification – how it gets started, who benefits, and who loses – is a longstanding concern in cities across the country.

But the term describes only the most visible and disturbing face of urban change: the crowding out of lower-income residents from a suddenly "hot" neighborhood by more affluent newcomers. At a time of growing income inequality in the U.S., it's an image that has captured the attention of the media and, increasingly, is sparking public indignation.

Writing in the New York Times ("Cities Helping Residents Resist the New Gentry"), Timothy Williams observes that "the arrival of newcomers to formerly working-class areas…is distinct from previous influxes over the past thirty years" because new arrivals tend to want to live in newer housing, and the condos and loft spaces built to satisfy that demand not only are too expensive for long-time residents but also add to the density of a neighborhood while reducing the ratio of older residents to new arrivals. Williams' article goes on to discuss measures that have been adopted by cities to mitigate the impact of gentrification on longtime homeowners, while a Times article ("Gentrifying Into the Shelters") by Ginia Bellafante notes that creating and maintaining affordable housing for low-income renters in gentrifying neighborhoods requires an altogether different set of measures.

The topic hasn't escaped the notice of documentary filmmakers. Told in different styles and about different places, films such as Gut Renovation (2012), Third Ward TX (2007), and We Will Not Be Moved (1980) identify common elements in the gentrification process -- foremost among them real estate speculation and private housing development, in many cases encouraged by tax breaks and rezoning policies.  

Su Friedrich's Gut Renovation is a very personal account of that process as it unfolded in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and how that process is displacing the local artist community – of which she is a member. It begins, in 2005, when Friedrich notices the first high-rise condo going up down the street and ends, five years later, with her own building's demolition to make way for the umpteenth luxe condo project in the neighborhood. Needless to say, the redevelopment of Williamsburg continues unabated, affecting the neighborhood’s long-term population of Poles, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans and irrevocably changing the very thing that attracted artists to the neighborhood in the first place.

Continue reading »

‘Fatal Assistance’: The Promise and Failure of Humanitarian Aid in Haiti

February 20, 2014

(Kathryn Pyle is a documentary filmmaker and a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her previous post, she wrote about the documentary Shored Up, winner of the 2014 Hilton Worldwide LightStay Sustainability Fund & Award.)

Fatal_assistance_posterThe magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, killed more than 200,000 Haitians, injured over 300,000 people, and left some 1.5 million Haitians homeless. It also devastated the capital city of Port-au-Prince, destroying buildings and wiping out large swaths of the city's infrastructure. As in most natural disasters, it was the poor, living in the most vulnerable areas, who were most affected – and Haiti was already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

The international response was immediate and unprecedented: ultimately, $14 billion was pledged for relief and recovery efforts by donor countries, bilateral and multilateral agencies, individuals, and foundations and corporations. The total amount actually disbursed was considerably less but still significant for a country with a population of only ten million.

Four years later, the clamor that arose almost immediately over how the aid was being disbursed, continues. In an editorial last month marking the fourth anniversary of the earthquake, the New York Times declared that despite the outpouring of support (and notwithstanding certain achievements), "Haiti is a fragile, largely forgotten country" where more than 170,000 people still live in temporary shelters.

A major criticism of the response has been the lack of direct support for, and meaningful consultation with, Haitians. According to the Guardian, of the $9 billion spent in Haiti by January 2013, 94 percent was funneled through donors' own entities, the United Nations, international NGOs, and private contractors. Reports since then confirm that only 5 percent of the money pledged for relief and recovery efforts in the country reached Haitian organizations.

Fatal Assistance, a new documentary by Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck, provides a personal account of what happened in the weeks and months after the quake struck and, at the same time, is a plea for a more effective approach to humanitarian assistance in developing countries. Completed in 2013, the film premiered last year at Berlinale, the Berlin international film festival, and has been shown as part of the 2014 Human Rights Film Festival screening in cities across the U.S.

When the earthquake struck, Peck, like many other Haitians living abroad, returned home to help. "Those first weeks were a time of solidarity and connection," he told me. "Everybody slept outside. The Haitians were organizing everything."

That changed when the international relief groups arrived.

Continue reading »

‘Shored Up’ and the Hilton Worldwide LightStay Sustainability Fund & Award

January 22, 2014

(Kathryn Pyle is a documentary filmmaker and a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. To view her latest effort, a short doc titled Apple Forecast: Immigration Reform, click here.)

Shored_up_posterShored Up, a documentary about rising sea levels, received the Hilton Worldwide LightStay Sustainability Fund & Award for feature documentary this week at the Sundance Film Festival. Philadelphia-based director Ben Kalina accepted the award, which was established in 2011 as part of a three-year agreement between Hilton Worldwide and the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, at a ceremony in Park City, Utah, the festival site.

The award includes a $25,000 grant for creative marketing and audience-building. Finished in May 2013, Shored Up won in the completed documentary category; one other feature film in production received the same level of support, while three shorter films received $5,000 each. The winning films will be offered on Hilton Worldwide's in-room channels at 3,800 hotels in 88 countries, as well as on the hotel chain’s various Web properties.

Shored Up is the first feature-length film to explore the impact of rising sea levels on coastal communities in the U.S. – The Island President, a documentary on the same theme set in the Maldives, won the award in 2012 -- and as such is an important contribution to policy debates about this critical  issue. The project also is a model of how foundations can advance their priorities through social issue documentaries and partnerships with community groups.

Prior to making Shored Up, Kalina, who became interested in human efforts to engineer dynamic, natural systems after reading John McPhee's The Control of Nature, worked as associate producer on two films about the environmental impact of current development and economic policies: Two Square Miles and A Sea Change, the latter based on Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2006 New Yorker article "The Darkening Sea," which explored the impact of rising global carbon emissions on ocean chemistry.

"I thought of the barrier islands: a pile of sand in the ocean that we're trying to hold in place," says Kalina. "This film deals with adaptation to climate change as opposed to how do we stop climate change. It lends itself to people talking about things that are local and regional, places where people can actually create change – in local land use decisions, development policies and environmental regulations."

Shot before and after Superstorm Sandy, Shored Up features two barrier island communities – Long Beach Island, New Jersey, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina – as they struggle to address beach erosion. The arguments advanced in favor of beach preservation are thrown into sharp relief when the film crew returns to LBI after Sandy to explore the devastating impact of the 2012 storm on the Jersey Shore.

Continue reading »

[Video] 'Apple Forecast: Immigration Reform'

December 28, 2013

Kathryn Pyle, one of our favorite PhilanTopic contributors, also is an acomplished documentary filmmaker. Her latest effort, a very short documentary titled Apple Forecast: Immigration Reform, "gives voice," in Kathryn's words, to small farmers who say our immigration system is hurting their business.

You can watch the film in its entirety below. It's also being hosted on the Web by the Francisan Action Network, where you can read a statements about the film by Kathryn and FAN executive director Patrick Carolan.

(Running time: 4:97)

To read more of Kathryn's posts for PhilanTopic, click here.

Have a thought or opinion about the doc or our immigration system? Feel free to share them in the comments section below.

'Latin Side of the Docs' in Mexico City

November 27, 2012

(Kathryn Pyle recently marked her fourth anniversary as a PhilanTopic contributor. In her last post, she wrote about Reportero, a new documentary by Bernardo Ruiz about embattled investigative journalists assigned to cover the drug wars in Mexico.)

LSD-MexicoCityLatin Side of the Docs, an annual marketplace and producers forum for documentary filmmakers, came to Mexico City earlier this month, attracting more than two hundred and fifty filmmakers and fifty industry representatives.

Filmmakers, broadcasters, and film distributors, most of them from Latin America, converged on the Spanish Cultural Center in the historic center of the city for the event. The center, which offers a variety of programs in a modern light-filled building, is located just behind the colonial-era Metropolitan Cathedral and ruins of Aztec pyramids bordering the Zócalo, the huge open plaza at the heart of the old city built by the Spaniards.

The three-day event was organized by DocsDF, a documentary film festival founded seven years ago in Mexico City, in collaboration with Sunny Side of the Docs, a longstanding international event/forum that matches documentary filmmakers seeking funds with broadcasters and distributors seeking good films. The organizers of Sunny Side now help stage similar events in Asia and, for the past four years, in Latin America -- the first three in Buenos Aires and now this year in Mexico City. Inti Cordera, a founder and the executive director of DocsDF, and Yves Jeanneau, a French filmmaker who created Sunny Side of the Docs, share a commitment. As Cordera put it, "We believe that documentary film is important and necessary, not just in terms of cinematic quality but also for the messages delivered."

Continue reading »

Librarians Reach Out to Spanish-Speakers on ‘Tell Me More’

September 28, 2012

(Kathryn Pyle recently marked her fourth anniversary as a PhilanTopic contributor. In her last post, she wrote about "Reportero," a documentary that tells the story of embattled investigative journalists assigned to cover the drug wars in Mexico.)

Tell_me_more"Tell Me More," the National Public Radio news and chat program hosted by Michel Martin, had a segment this week about the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color, which met earlier this month in Kansas City. As I've periodically blogged here on PhilanTopic about a small-town library's efforts to meet the needs of a growing Latino population, the story caught my attention.

In the segment ("Librarians Reach Out to Spanish-Speakers"), guest host Celeste Headlee talked with international librarian consultant Loida Garcia-Febo about the conference and the challenges libraries face in a time of huge cultural change. As I listened to the discussion, I thought about the Adams County Library in south-central Pennsylvania and what it has figured out -- and is still trying to figure out -- in terms of serving the needs of Latino migrant workers in the area. The main takeaway for me: libraries must go beyond their traditional services to really understand who their new constituencies are, what those constituencies need, and what they can do to help meet those needs.

Consider, for instance, the fact that Latinos in the U.S. hail from many different countries, with different literary traditions. In that light, it suddenly becomes obvious that even expanding the traditional library product -- books – to these audiences is not as simple as it might seem.

"But libraries are much more than books," said Garcia-Febo. "We are also celebrating the cultures of our Latinos by presenting cultural programs and programs celebrating their music, their cuisine, and other programs that are more social. And those programs help our Spanish-speakers to understand public school systems in the United States and how to access health care."

Continue reading »

Contributors

Quote of the Week

  • "Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour...."

    — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Subscribe to Philantopic

Contributors

Guest Contributors

  • Laura Cronin
  • Derrick Feldmann
  • Thaler Pekar
  • Kathryn Pyle
  • Nick Scott
  • Allison Shirk

Tweets from @PNDBLOG

Follow us »

Archives

Other Blogs

Tags