Monday, September 27, 2010

First Person Museum Exhibit Design

This week, we were tasked with creating our own exhibit design for the First Person Museum. We were to follow the six steps detailed in Alice Parman’s article, “Exhibit Makeovers: Do-It-Yourself Exhibit Planning.” As she proscribes, I began by thinking about my favorite and least favorite museum experiences through my years of visiting such institutions. Additionally, I imagined that I had unlimited funds for such an endeavor. I’ve picked out some of the most pertinent concerns in Parman’s article to bullet-point in my exhibit design below. Additionally, I’ve included a rendering below (albeit quite primitive: I have woefully limited skills with computer graphics programs) of roughly how I would plan out my exhibit space.

Mission Statement: (Taken from the First Person Arts website) Transforming the drama of real life into memoir and documentary art to foster appreciation for our unique and shared experience. Everyone has a story to tell. Sharing our stories connects us with each other and the world.

Take-Home Messages: Everyone can be a part of history and tell a story that is part of the same. History is accessible.

The Storyline: History is happening all the time, and it’s not something that only happens to crusty, old, white guys. History is something that happens to everyone and we all can have a role, whether we know it or not.

Object Arrangement: When I think of my least favorite museum exhibits, they are usually the ones which involved heavy reading. Anyone who knows me knows I love to read, so for me to make such an assertion must mean that overly-abundant text is tiresome in a museum. I think I would make the First Person Arts Museum completely multimedia and interactive. I volunteered with Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center. One of the most popular features was “voting booths.” Patrons seemed to be nearly compelled by curiosity to part the curtains and enter the spaces. Once inside, visitors saw what looked like voting booths and were presented with computer screens. They could touch spots on the screens and learn more
about the process of elections throughout the 50 states. Another museum exhibit I found compelling was at the African American Museum of Philadelphia. Here, visitors were presented with large television screens playing videos of actors portraying historical figures. Alongside the screens were buttons visitors could push to “ask” questions of the person portrayed. Each button triggered a video in which the actor answers the visitor’s question. I would model my version of the First Person Museum on these ideas. I would create a circular space with a series of “pods” around the walls, similar to the video rooms near the giant heart at the Franklin Institute. Each pod would contain the object in question, as well as an interactive video screen explaining the significance of each object. Objects would be housed on pedestals in clear boxes inside the pods. The owners of the objects would tell their story on video. Visitors could choose that option from among several buttons in the pod. Additionally, the historians involved would create short video sessions to explain the historical context as well as the social and cultural context. I would make sure that each object had a video segment to tie it to a larger moment in history. For instance, my object, a birth certificate, has gained greater historical significance (or notoriety) in light of Barack Obama’s presidency. All of the objects would have a segment relating them to history, in addition to their personal meanings. Each of these segments would necessarily be short to hold viewer attention. As a class, we are working with 19 objects, which may be too many for this format. Additionally, I would create an introductory pod to briefly explain the exhibit. However, it wouldn’t be necessary for visitors to start on one particular spot. As such, I wouldn’t have a particular linear arrangement for the objects. Additionally, the outsides of the pods would have decorations or graphics alluding to their content so visitors could choose the ones that most interested them. Finally, I would create an area in the center with seating and tables. I would provide pens and paper for people to leave feedback, contribute their own stories, and share their experiences of the museum. I might pose questions in this area for viewers to contemplate and write an answer. Additionally, I would encourage patrons to discuss their experiences with each other.

As promised, here is a rough rendering of what I imagine my exhibit space would look like:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Object-Driven History

If I’d been tasked with the assignment of examining the greater pop cultural significance of birth certificates, say, in 2007, I wouldn’t have thought there was any at all. Birth certificates in political discourse? No way. Then things got ugly during the 2008 election cycle. Mud was being flung in every direction and Barack Obama, young political phenom from Chicago, had his citizenship called into question via the validity, or lack thereof, of his birth certificate. Was he secretly a Kenyan, not an American? Was it illegal for him to run for President of the United States? Conspiracy theorists first claimed Obama had no certificate at all. Once the Obama camp provided a Hawaiian certification of live birth, the document’s legality was then interrogate. Claims were bantered about that Obama’s documentation was forged. Why wasn’t the state seal visible? (Turns out Obama’s was stamped on the reverse and only the front of the document was scanned; the stamp didn’t render well for this reason.) The Obama camp blacked out the certificate number when they released the scan as proof of his citizenship. This was taken as sure proof the document was a fake. It couldn’t have possibly been an attempt to protect the future President’s privacy. Verifications of Obama’s legal citizenship came from all corners: judges ruled in his favor; the Hawaiian government confirmed he was born in their state; the Honolulu Advertiser and Star-Bulletin offered up the Obama birth announcements published in their papers in 1961. Obama was proven an American citizen, but birth certificates earned a place in pop culture and political history. Obama launched a still-running “Fight the Smears” website with a page dedicated to the validity of his documentation. Popular internet myth-busting site has an extensive page defending Obama’s status as an American. A simple Google search for “birth certificate” gives extensive results regarding the Obama birth certificate controversy. However, no matter how many voices join the chorus to proclaim Obama’s American citizenship, conspiracy theorists cling to the idea that Obama’s presidency is illegal.

Birth certificates represent the responsibility of a government toward its citizens. If one can prove one was born in a particular nation, one is entitled to certain government privileges and services. Birth certificates prove one has the full rights of citizenship in the issuing country, thus making a forgery a valuable thing in places like the United States. A real birth certificate, however, is a basic building block of one’s identity, a symbol of rights and privileges, even status. As is the case with Amy’s birth certificate, the real thing means different things to different people and even has the power to validate one’s person. Or not.

Monday, September 13, 2010

History of Things

My object, a birth certificate, is owned by a woman named Amy. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to meet Amy at the First Person Arts event tonight, so I don’t have much information on her ownership of the certificate. Amy was born in Germany, but her father was an American soldier, so she is a citizen of the United States. Her treasured possession is her German birth certificate, but the history of birth certificates outside the United States is especially elusive. The history of issuing birth certificates to American children born outside the United States is even more so.

Birth certificates were not commonly issued in the United States until the early 1900s. The Census Bureau created the first standardized birth certificate in 1900. This governmental body devised a system by which to annually collect birth (and death) statistics from each state. This was a response to the increased need for information on circumstances in which American citizens lived and comprehensive data on population increases and decreases, as well as other social conditions. The Bureau retained this responsibility until 1946 when the system was overhauled and the duty was reassigned to the United States Public Health Service. Today, the Division of Vital Statistics of the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) collects birth and death data. However, the federal government no longer is the body to issue birth certificates. This duty presently falls to each individual state and U.S. territories. Each state or territorial government is responsible for submitting birth statistics to the NCHS. The NCHS is responsible for making sure each state submits consistent and uniform data which are compatible with those issued by every other state or territory. Through this system, nearly anyone born after 1900 would have been issued a birth certificate.

As mentioned, I can’t speak to Amy’s specific case. However, often parents keep their children’s birth certificates until adulthood, at which time the forms are passed on to those children whose documents they are. The papers are used to prove identity and citizenship. A birth certificate is confirmation one exists; a validation of one’s being. I can’t testify as to how Amy has used her birth certificate specifically, nor can I say I have interacted with Amy’s birth certificate physically. However, the story of the paperwork touches me greatly. Though I was reluctant to learn the story, suppose the tale is relevant here. Amy was born in Germany in 1947 to an American soldier who married her mother, a German woman, while stationed overseas. The couple was of two different races. Amy’s American birth certificate is stamped with the word, “Mulatto.” Her German birth certificate, which is her treasured possession, is not marked by any such hurtful language. I find this to be tremendously poignant: Amy’s birth certificate is significant for what is absent; for what it is not.

For further information and to view my source for the above, please click here.

Monday, September 6, 2010

History from Things

I have not yet had the opportunity to see my object in person, but I’m looking forward to doing so on September 13. That said, much of what I’ll write about Amy’s birth certificate in this post will be conjecture. Out of respect for the amount of personal data on a birth certificate, I’ve decided not to post a picture of the document here.

As I mentioned, I have not had a firsthand experience of Amy’s birth certificate, but from the photograph I’ve seen, the record appears to have been printed on a fairly standard sheet of paper measuring about eight-and-a-half by eleven inches in my estimation. However, there isn’t anything to provide a frame of reference in the image I received, so the page could be smaller or larger than that size. This would make its weight fairly negligible. The document is unadorned save for an official stamp. The text is typewritten, though a few fields were filled in by hand. The object dates from 1947, when paper was a mass-produced, inexpensive material. Every birth warranted a birth certificate, so the government would have had plenty of the forms on hand. Therefore, the cost in making the object was negligible. Additionally, the form wouldn’t have cost anything monetary to receive.

The document is written in German, a language in which I am not fluent, unfortunately. Also, the picture I received is blurry, so the text is illegible despite my lack of prowess with the German. However, the image makes very clear that the birth certificate has been handled often. The document is dog-eared and beginning to tear along the creases as though it has been folded and unfolded many times. Bits of the edges are missing. Obviously, this piece of paper has meant a lot to its owner and symbolizes more than a mere demographical document.