Friday, January 29, 2016

Future Fiction Friday

Hi, this is Sylvea. I wanted to share a story from our Future Fiction Challenge…this one, by Sarah Jesse, is entitled “World Museum and Library Database.” Check out the other entries here and submit your story!

If you would like tips from Elizabeth to get you started, read “How to Write the Future.”

 Crap.  It’s Monday. 

You know that feeling right when you wake up and can’t remember what day it is?  For a split second I thought it was Sunday and, man, it felt good.  I had just started plotting how I would spend the day when another resident, Calvin, flung open my door and yelled, “Arreis!  You’re still in bed?  Wake up!  You’re gonna make us late!”

I snapped out of my half-asleep state and felt a familiar knot forming in the pit of my stomach.  So much for playing football and video games all day.  Groggy and annoyed, I got ready for school.

I dread weekdays for this very reason.  I’m on what my teacher Mr. Machado calls “thin ice.”  He’s always riding me for zoning out in class.  Last week after missing another assignment, he lit into me in front of everyone about how I have to start applying myself.  Whatever that means.  School is boring and pointless.  Besides, I’ve got a lot on my mind so it’s impossible to pay attention. 

One thing to know about me is that I’m a foster kid.  For most of my life I’ve been in and out of group homes.  It’s pretty much all I know, but it still stinks.  Next week is another court hearing when I find out if I have to move to another residence and transfer schools for the second time this year.  Like I said, I’ve got more important things to think about than some dumb school project.  But I can’t blow it again with Mr. M or who knows what will happen this time.

At least I won’t be stuck in a depressing classroom all week. Calvin reminded me: class is being held at a museum.   

We arrive at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and are greeted by someone who works there named Sarah.  We snake our way through the galleries with her until we reach our destination.  I look up and note the sign above the glass doors: The World Museum and Library Hub: Classroom #5. 

Huh.  In spite of myself, I perk up and peer into the Hub.  This might be kind of cool actually. 

I step inside and walk around a little, taking everything in.  The room itself is nice, but nothing special.  It’s about half the size of a basketball court with wood floors, white walls, high ceilings and a skylight.  What’s interesting about the space are all of the random objects scattered throughout.  

Compared to the galleries we saw along the way, it’s pretty laid-back in here.  Tables and chairs are strewn about the space in uneven groupings.  Black and white photographs are propped up against the wall and on shelves. In the middle of the room, larger tables have been pushed together to display what look like posters, newspaper clippings, and other documents.  Some of these things look really old.  It’s hard to believe they’re just out in the open like this and not locked inside cases or anything. 

Curious, I look closer at the photographs.  Some of them look familiar, but I can’t figure out why.  We gather in a half circle around Sarah and Mr. M.

“Welcome to the World Museum and Library Hub at LACMA,” Sarah says cheerfully.  “In this room are all of the primary sources you requested from the WML database, which includes objects from every museum and library in the world, all in one place.   I understand from Mr. Machado that you’ve been studying everyday life at different times and places around the world…“

As Sarah continues talking, it hits me. 

“Wait!  That’s the photo I saw online!”  I blurt out.

My body freezes—except for my heart, which is pounding, and my face that is turning redder by the second.  Everyone is quiet, waiting for Mr. M to react to my outburst.  To my surprise, Sarah laughs and then, shockingly, so does Mr. M.  I relax a little.

“Yes, class, as Arreis reminds us, our latest examination of daily life focuses on labor throughout history. The wide variety of sources you identified will help us understand not only what work was like both in and outside of the home, but also why it was like this and how it developed this way.  Over the course of the week, we’ll use the objects you selected as tools to uncover different perspectives.

Despite only half-paying attention in class when this project began, the pieces were starting to connect for me. 

The month prior, Mr. M had divided us into groups to research various aspects of the topic.  Not surprisingly, I was forced to partner with Matilda, an intense, know-it-all type.  I’m sure he thought she’d be a good influence on me.  Of course Matilda had a million ideas for our project.  She had mentioned something about kids in the early 1900s working full time, and it sounded mildly interesting to me at the time, so I agreed we could focus on that.

She immediately pulled out her tablet and typed “” into the address bar.  “What’s that?”  I remember asking her.  She rolled her eyes in a way that seemed to say, “Have you not paid any attention to what’s been going on in class?”  She responded curtly, “It’s a website of historical objects from all over the world.  You pick out what you want to see in real life, save it to your digital cart, and it’ll get sent to the closest Hub to our zip code.”  I got out my tablet and, following her lead, punched “kids” and “work” into a keyword search field.

Matilda eventually warmed up to me, and we spent the rest of the afternoon looking through the 44,000 objects from museums and libraries that the search produced.  She spent a lot of time looking at old letters and pamphlets, which all seemed a little dull, but she was into it.  I found a bunch of photographs by Lewis Hine from art and history museums.  Matilda narrowed my selection down to ones that related to ideas in the documents she chose and saved them to our class’ cart.  When we finished, we clicked on the dashboard icon.  Our class had picked 47 objects from 12 museums and 18 libraries in the U.S. 

Fast forward four weeks, we’re now in the Hub looking at the very objects we requested.

Mr. Machado finishes giving the class direction and cuts us loose to look everything over.  I find Matilda, and we go to the photograph from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that had prompted my outburst.  It’s a portrait of a boy my age who worked in a factory.  He looks a little like me.  Matilda notices it too. His mouth is curved in a slight smirk and his brow is creased, which makes him seem a lot older.  He looks tough, but also tired and worried.  I can relate to that.   

We examine our other objects as well, and Matilda fills me in on what she learned so far from the documents.  Hearing details about the working conditions at the time makes me see the kids in Hines’ photographs differently.  We’re in the middle of planning what we need to do next for our project when Mr. Machado interrupts the class: “Ok, students, it’s time to wrap up for the day.” 

I look at the clock.  Woah, it’s already 3:00 pm.  We pack up our things and trace our steps back through the galleries with Sarah toward the exit.  Mr. M catches up to me and we talk a little about the day.  As I board the bus to go back to my residence, I think about the boy in the photo and what life must have been like for him—Where were his parents? Did he have siblings? Was he ever afraid?  Had he ever gone to school?   What kind of jobs did he have to do?  What had he wanted to be when he grew up?

Calvin didn’t have to wake me up the next morning.  I had my own work to do.  To answer these questions, I needed to get back to the Hub.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Kentucky’s Jefferson Davis Dilemma

In a post last June I began to track how museums are invoked by protesters calling for the removal of monuments and symbols celebrating the Confederacy in particular, and America's slave-holding past more generally. In the ensuing months, these protests have increased in scope and volume. A statue of Jefferson Davis has been removed from the University of Texas, Austin. A stain-glass window in Calhoun College at Yale has been redacted to remove the image of a slave kneeling at Calhoun's feet, and now students are pressuring the university to rename the residential college itself. Students at the University of Missouri are trying to oust a statue of Thomas Jefferson. Some private non-profit museums have a choice, however difficult or fraught, about what role to play in where such ethically and historically fraught artifacts are stored and how (or if) they are exhibited. Other museums fill a role assigned by the city, state or college which governs them. Today on the blog, Daniel Vivian (@dcslim on Twitter), assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville shares how one call to "put it in a museum" is playing out in the state of Kentucky.

As debates about Confederate symbols continue, the fate of Kentucky’s most prominent statue of Confederate President and native son Jefferson Davis remains unclear. Last August, the Kentucky Historic Prosperities Advisory Commission (HPAC), the state board charged with oversight of several state-owned historic buildings, voted 7-2 to leave the statue in the rotunda of the state capitol building, where it has stood since 1936. The decision seemed to put the issue to rest. In September, however, seventy-two historians from sixteen Kentucky colleges and universities signed a letter urging the statue be moved to a museum. Then, during a contentious gubernatorial campaign, Democratic nominee Jack Conway and Republican candidate Matt Bevin both announced they would support removal. Now that Bevin has taken office, people throughout the commonwealth await the next move.

Jefferson Davis statue taken by David Buchta, Director and State Curator of the Kentucky Division of Historic Properties
The Davis statue took its place in the capitol rotunda as efforts to memorialize the Confederacy ebbed. Support for a monument honoring Davis began after his funeral in 1899. In 1907, the unveiling of a grand memorial on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, signified Davis’s ascendancy among the Confederacy’s heroes. White southerners saw Davis as a symbol for the righteousness of the Confederacy’s cause and the South’s suffering after the Civil War. In 1913, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) proposed a coast-to-coast highway named for the Confederate president. Four years later, Kentuckians began construction of a 351-foot concrete obelisk at Davis’s birthplace in Fairview, Kentucky. Completed in 1924, the monument is today the featured attraction at Jefferson Davis State Historic Site. 

The rotunda statue took its place with relatively little fanfare. In 1932, the UDC commissioned Frederick Cleveland Hibbard to create a statue of Davis to stand alongside several others in the capitol. Hibbard, an experienced sculptor of Confederate monuments, crafted his rendering of Davis from Tennessee marble. Unveiled in December 1936, the statue joined figures of Henry Clay, Ephraim McDowell, and Abraham Lincoln. Davis’s addition to the group proved uncontroversial. Americans of the 1930s generally viewed Davis as belonging to a long list of political and military heroes who had secured a place in national memory. Not until the civil rights era would different perspectives gain ascendance.

Kentuckians’ celebration of Davis revealed more about contemporary politics than Davis’s personal history. Born July 3, 1808, Davis spent three years in Kentucky before his family decamped for Louisiana and then moved to Wilkinson County, Mississippi. Davis always considered Mississippi his home. He returned to Kentucky at the age of eight to attend a Catholic school and later enrolled at Transylvania University in Lexington. Davis did not graduate from Transylvania; he accepted an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and graduated from that institution in 1828. Although Davis did not discount his ties to Kentucky, he also did not emphasize them. He died proud of having served the Confederacy, devoted to Mississippi, and indifferent toward the Bluegrass State.

The HPAC will meet in early February to discuss installation of interpretive media about Kentucky’s role in the Civil War. As part of the decision to leave the statue in the rotunda, the commission decided to create educational materials to explain the statue’s symbolism and Davis’s ties to Kentucky. The form and content of these materials are yet to be determined. Moreover, whether they will ever be installed is uncertain. Not only has Governor Bevin voiced support for removing the statue, but Greg Stumbo, Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives, has said he will introduce legislation to move it to the Kentucky History Center. So far, he has yet to follow through and no other legislators have introduced similar bills. There remains plenty of time, however. The current General Assembly session is scheduled to continue through March 28. New legislation can be introduced until the end of February.

The Davis statue has not attracted national headlines in the same way that other Confederate memorials have, but the reasons for the controversy surrounding it are no different. Historical erasures of sordid, deeply divisive histories demand atonement. Only then can reconciliation occur. The horrific shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, last June, thrust troubling histories to the forefront of public consciousness. Museums large and small have played—and continue to play—vital roles in these discussions. The questions weighing on the nation’s collective morality demand informed guidance. Whatever the eventual results, the process of debating the past is a hallmark of democracy. The promise of a more just and equitable future is well worth whatever difficulties may be involved.