47 posts categorized "author-Kathryn Pyle"

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 »

Social Impact Documentaries: 'Reportero'

September 10, 2012

(Kathryn Pyle recently marked her fourth anniversary as a PhilanTopic contributor. In her last post, she returned to the subject of her very first post, the Adams County Library system in a rural part of south-central Pennsylvania, to check on its progress in improving services for the growing Latino population in the area.)

Reportero_posterAs the audience for social issue documentary films grows, the intersection between a film and its impact is of increasing concern to media funders, media organizations, and filmmakers themselves. There is general agreement that documentary films are an important source of information and opinion in our corporate-dominated media landscape and that they often provide the in-depth analysis of complex issues lacking in most mainstream media coverage. But how one measures the impact of individual films or the field as a whole is still very much a work in progress. As in other spheres, grantmakers are interested not just in the quality of the project (the film, in this case) but also in the results it leads to. And nongovernmental organizations, most of which are still learning how to best use the documentary format, are looking for models.

Two sessions at the annual "Funders Conversation" hosted by Media Impact Funders earlier this summer addressed these concerns. Indeed, the recent rebranding of the organization, which had been known since its inception as Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media (GFEM), is testament to the trend.

"Very few of our members define themselves as film funders," explained MIF executive director Vince Stehle in a conversation at the affinity group's new office in Philadelphia. "Documentary film will continue to be as important, if not more so, than it's ever been. But it's only one feature of the media landscape, along with journalism, public media, community media, social media, and technology. MIF reflects all those communitiess as they work to achieve positive social impact. And we support the growing interest in measuring impact and understanding engagement."

One session, on "Documentary Film Impact and Outreach," focused on partnerships between filmmakers and Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization founded in 1976 that uses film to combat racism, anti-Semitism, and prejudice. In partnership with Skylight Pictures (also a presenter at the session), the organization developed three video models and a study guide (available online) based on the Skylight film The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court.

Another session, "Measuring Media and Philanthropy," reported on a new initiative led by the Foundation Center's GrantCraft project and GuideStar to track and map funding for media. The session also described an inquiry into measures of engagement with, and the impact of, grantmaker-funded media projects headed by Jessica Clark of AIRmedia.

Continue reading »

Libraries and Latinos: Return to Adams County

August 14, 2012

(Kathryn Pyle recently marked her fourth anniversary as a PhilanTopic contributor. In her last post, she wrote about the Justice Matters series at Filmfest DC.)

Children_with_booksFour years ago, in my first post for PhilanTopic, I described how the Adams County Library system in a rural part of south central Pennsylvania used a modest donation to try out some new ideas and improve its services for the growing Latino population in the area, mainly families and seasonal workers from Mexico.

Since then, thanks to PhilanTopic's broad and inclusive vision of civic life, I've written about a presidential inauguration, a "City of Trees," the first moon landing, transitional justice, a memorial park in Argentina, and -- most frequently -- social issue documentaries and the organizations that support them. Over that time, I've really enjoyed the opportunity the PND team has given me to refine my vision of the nexus of philanthropy and social justice. But today, because this is my thirtieth (!) post for PhilanTopic, I thought it would be interesting to revisit Adams County to see what, if anything, has changed.

I caught up with library director Rob Lesher on his way to the annual library book sale, which was organized by the Friends of the Library at the main branch in Gettysburg; Lesher told me they hoped to raise at least $25,000. That's a lot of used books and a big shot in the arm for any library in an era of government cuts.

"It's been a challenge financially," says Lesher. "But the big news is that this summer we've seen the highest circulation months in our history. Seventy-five thousand items circulated in July, part of a fifteen-year pattern of growth. And 2011 was a record year, with seven hundred and fifty thousand items circulated; we'll equal that this year. Despite the cutbacks, we've managed to expand our services to Latinos. The key has been experimenting with new programs and partnering with community organizations."

Continue reading »

Contributors

Quote of the Week

  • "My favorite Civil War era monuments are the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments...."

    — David Tenenhaus, professor of history and law, University of Nevada Las Vegas

Subscribe to Philantopic

Contributors

Guest Contributors

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

Tweets from @PNDBLOG

Follow us »

Other Blogs

Tags