Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The MuseumHack Ethic: Proving the Power of a Good "Fuck"

A year ago today, I was on a train on the way back from New York City after a whirlwind weekend of learning of norm-breaking. Today is my "Hackiversary." I made that term up, by the way.

MuseumHack began offering bootcamps, training opportunities for interpreters to learn all their dirty secrets, one year ago. And thanks to some conniving and a little bit of luck, I was able to get in on that ground floor.

So what the hell is MuseumHack? They call themselves a "renegade" tour company; they take visitors on unauthorized tours of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC (and four other museums across the Nation - but The Met is the OG edition and MuseumHack Mothership). Their tagline?

Museums Are Fucking Awesome.

Seriously. I have an NPR-style tote bag with that emblazoned on it - it was our graduation gift.

The concept revolves around reverent irreverence. The guides on a MuseumHack tour are so enamored by the things they're talking about, so excited by just being in their presence, that they express that joy in raw and pure form.When something is fucking awesome, they don't say, "This is an amazingly impressive work of art and achievement of human cultural expression." They say, "Can't you see how fucking amazing this is!?" They let their joy express itself unvarnished.

I really need to stop using the goddamned passive voice to dodge this bullet.

We let our joy express itself unvarnished.

MuseumHack taught me to love the story I'm telling and to show that passion through how I tell the story. In essence, they teach one of the pinnacle versions of storytelling training.

Who died and left this sign
fucking boss? / CC John_from_CT
But what does this have to do with the Civil War and battlefields? It raises a huge question: why are we so damned respectful in these places? More to the point, why do we feel like we need to express respect for a place in one format following the social conventions of one generation and culture?

The whole goal of a MuseumHack experience is to get millennial audience engaged with cultural landscapes they've abandoned. The target is simple and clear: people my age who have been abandoned by museums as unreachable. The target is people my age who have had a negative experience (read: boring, didactic or authoritarian) in a museum and refuse to return. The target is people who were never welcomed the first time for who they were, and instead had needless demands placed on them to conform to established cultural norms.

So the first casualty of a MuseumHack-style experience are the established cultural norms. Ethan Angelica, our ringleader for Bootcamp and now a good friend, put it this way: "I drop an F-bomb in the first few sentences of my introduction. If they haven't stormed out then, I can say whatever the fuck I want."

The respect comes from the real love shown in the enthusiasm. Even the artists that you hate get a loving rib, not a spiteful one. Afterall, if you really hated them, you'd run right past their paintings to something else.

Yup. You run through the museum. You have permission to ignore art. In fact, you are actively encouraged to ignore art as you streak past it. The MET is too packed with art to see in a few hours, or even a few days. There's no way to absorb the entire story in one visit. Or a damned lifetime. So the MuseumHack ethic says, "don't even try." Kind like trying to understand 48 hours of combat between 100,000 men during a 3-hour tour-much?

Instead of trying to be complete, you sprint from piece of art to piece of art. The idea is to get tastes of this and that. It's the crack dealer offering up the first tasty hit. We know you're going to get hooked. To get reintroduced to a landscape that has rejected you before. You can understand the whole by trying out a part; you don't need to consume the whole pie to understand it's cherry, it's good and the crust is flaky.

And the language is vernacular. Boobs are boobs. Butts are butts. And it's OK to giggle at the enormous (or not so enormous) schlongs on Greek sculpture. When someone is fucking crazy, you call them fucking crazy. When someone's fucking brave, you call them fucking brave. When they fuck up?

You guessed it: they fucked up.

It's not only about swearing. In fact, good hacks don't have anything that off-color in them at all. But to me, the swearing is a symptom of something we rarely let come out in Civil War landscapes: pure, unadulterated love for our subjects. That real enthusiasm is contagious. But real enthusiasm isn't captured from prattling fact after fact. We so often try to show our love of a subject by demonstrating the depth of our knowledge. You think I don't love General Stick-Up-His-Butt? Let me prove to you how much I love him by spouting fact after fact about him, proving the endless hours of research I've put into him including, but not limited to, dissecting his final bowel movement.

Even when those avalanches of facts are meant earnestly, and I'm coming to believe they so often are, they aren't read as such. These walking encyclopedias aren't winning visitors over with their knowledge; oftentimes, data says, they're doing the exact opposite.

But if you bubble and froth in your visitors' native language you have a chance to infect them with their own found enthusiasm. And the native language of the majority of visitors is not the language of enfilade fire, right wheels or firing by file from the right. They speak regular old everyday english. And some of them - more than would admit it - stop wide-eyed and say, "Well, fuck!" when they encounter something truly impressive.

A MuseumHack experience is not the ONLY tour that should be available at the MET. But it's an important part of the offering. It aims for a particular audience and hits it squarely in the face. And the lessons offered can apply everywhere.

Does that mean go out on a battlefield and start dropping F-bombs like so-much canister from the mouth of Alonzo Cushing's cannon? Maybe yes. Gotta know your audience. The battlefield, like every facet of cultural heritage, belongs to everyone. And Cushing was a fucking hero.

So, yeah, when I've been out there with an audience that I think can take the truth? My friends? I've already called him a fucking hero standing right there at the Angle.

But more importantly, the MuseumHack ethic is a call-to-arms. The dogmas of the quiet past, the social mores of our cultural landscapes, might very well be inadequate for the stormy present. We might just need to change how we talk about these amazing place.

And if that's all too frightening, take a look at this video about scaring away the boogeymen who scare you:

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Your Circuit's Dead, There's Something Wrong": Let's Reboot This Experiment

It's been exactly 2 years since I posted a regular blog post. Aside from my ruminations on the march from Selma to Montgomery, it's been radio silence here. And that's been for reasons.

I don't want to say it has been for good reason, but just reasons. In fact, it was for bad reasons. The Civil War interpretive world is a very insular place. It's a very codified place. It's a very static place. And I was scared.

Yup. That's the best word for it. "Scared."

I think my fear was warranted. I was afraid I was ruining my career prospects by blogging openly about how we might do this whole job of discussing the Civil War with the American People better. I was.

I was afraid I was functionally making myself toxic and unhireable. I was.

I was afraid that I'd never work in the Civil War interpretive field again. And frankly, I likely won't.

Five years ago, a reply to this blog came in a letter to myself and my former co-author. It came on the email equivalent of official stationary from a major Civil War National Park Service site. In much longer, deeper and more rambling words, it basically said, "I wonder at your temerity."

That moment infected me. You can look back at the posts I wrote in reply (but at the time didn't overtly admit as such) and see the seething anger I had at that moment. And that, in the end, fueled my fear.

But I'm done with fear.

In 1931, in the building where I work in Harpers Ferry, a woman tried to stand up to the powers that be. And they denied her entreaties. Choir Director Pearl Tatten begged of the white Storer College President, "Do you think we should appear on such a program when we honor John Brown and feel that while he may have used the wrong methods, his motive was just?” He didn't listen.

Pearl's choir sat on the rostrum as the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated what they themselves called a, "Loyal Slave Monument." The black choir, with its black choir director, sat behind speakers as they praised racism, praised what America used to be, praised slavery and the, "black mammy."

The college president had been warned. He should have known better. He should have just cancelled the choir's participation. He didn't.

Pearl stepped up to the podium. She wasn't supposed to speak. She did.

"I am the daughter of a Connecticut volunteer, who wore the blue, who fought for the freedom of my people, for which John Brown struck the first blow. Today we are looking forward to the future, forgetting those things of the past."

The crowd sat gape-jawed.

"We are pushing forward to a larger freedom, not in the spirit of the black mammy but in the spirit of new freedom and rising youth."

The local black press called that moment a bolt from the blue, striking the crowd and electrifying the air. There were murmurs. There was outrage. Someone in the crowd, undoubtedly one of the daughters who were trying so hard to prove that the cause their fathers had fought for—the cause of slavery—was just, scribbled a note.

"I wonder at your temerity. Your untimely remarks were out of place, in poor spirit, and most discourteous. Such ignorance is colossal."

I've been thinking about Pearl Tatten more and more. About that moment when she literally laid her life on the line for the dignity of her students and the future of her nation. I think about everything she could have lost. As I've said time and again while interpreting her story in the building, women across the south were lynched for less.

And I think of how much privilege I have and my retreat into silence. And I feel shame.

I think finally shame is outweighing the fear.

I'm back.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

We've Got A Movement Down in Selma: Day 5

My friend and sister TK marching
for her uncle's memory.
"My people, my people, listen. The battle is in our hands. The battle is in our hands in Mississippi and Alabama and all over the United States.... And so as we go away this afternoon, let us go away more than ever before committed to this struggle and committed to nonviolence. I must admit to you that there are still some difficult days ahead. We are still in for a season of suffering...."

One of my friends, a young woman who is like a sister after 54 miles of walking, got overheated as the speakers were on the rostrum yesterday afternoon. Together we had walked from Selma to Montgomery, a family welded together one the road. Quite a few miles back we had discussed her high school in Little Rock and the idea of ownership of powerful places. She was befuddled by the fact that some people think her high school — where nine brave sets of feet marched into a schoolhouse and changed history in 1957 — shouldn't continue its powerful mission to push America's youth forward. They think it's too important for students anymore; it should be an historic site and nothing more.

Meanwhile, as historians are asserting control over her school, the place goes to ruin because it can't be a living landscape. A stagnant pool of water breeds mosquitoes out front of the historic steps. But try as they might, teachers and students can't get anyone to get the water flowing, make the place healthier and more welcoming to the students who call that place home. It's because those steps, that building is historic. And in 1957 there was no positive flow system on that now-stagnant pool.

Standing on the street in front of the Capitol building in Montgomery, I get the feeling those historians have. I feel like, in some sense, I can understand the impulse. I feel like those steps are mine, my inherited heritage as an American. I've written about this before, running right back to the very roots of the blog. That story sings to my soul. This march has been a pilgrimage for me. I was so excited to be standing at the head of the column, leading "We Shall Overcome" through a bullhorn as my voice slowly went south from shouting. And hearing the speeches, seeing the spectacle, feeling the power were going to be the highlight of an arduous journey.

Then I saw my friend, her skin flush, looking like she would collapse in an instant. And I forgot where I was. She's family, my sister. I used my magical flat hat and badge to help part the crowds. We set her on a sunny hill. And I hoisted a protest sign to block the sun from her face.

From then on, the speeches didn't matter. The day melted away. Friend after friend came to the hillside. Some were veterans of a 54-mile march. Some had only traveled the last 3 miles with us up Dexter Avenue But they were all family. Some were marching to remember family members who died 50 years ago during the movement. Others were here to be witnesses. Still more just were looking for an activation, for a moment where they've find what they were fighting for. They were looking for their Selma.

I could say it's because I was wearing that damned uniform, that magical hat. But if I said that I'd be lying. I wasn't a park ranger yesterday. I might have had the arrowhead on my shoulder, but it wasn't some sense of duty making me fan folks, talk to them, joke with them about how much Bernice King's cadence is copied from her father's recordings. It was because we're family now. Toss that hat aside, throw the badge away? I'd still have ignored the speeches and helped my friends.

When she arrived, I promised my friend's mother that I'd make sure she got home safe. And yesterday afternoon her mom picked her up in the parking lot of the Lowndes County visitor center a bit battered and wilted, but none-the-worse for wear.

As we said goodbye, I joked. "And get that reflecting pool in front of the school fixed!"

"I don't know about that," she replied.

"Just rattle the cages," I said, "Make some noise."

"That's right," she said, her mother visibly not quite understanding anything that was going on, "I'm an activist now. I can change it."

My heart broke open at that moment and poured out of my eyes. We all changed the world this week. And we'll keep changing it. We are family in no light sense of that word.

We've got a movement going down in Selma.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Can't Turn Around, We've Come This Far By Faith: Day 4

"...today I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world, that we are not about to turn around. We are on the move now. Yes, we are on the move and no wave of racism can stop us. We are on the move now."

The last time I went to a Catholic Mass was on Easter last year. My head was in a bad place. I felt all alone. Mom was gone. and the landscape of the world looked entirely foreign. Even the Mass itself had changed. New responses replaced old ingrained phrases. My mouth didn't match the rest of the congregation. I was lost.

This morning, I stood with a group of people of whom I am eminently proud. What we've done in the past few days is fundamentally different than any other interpretive program undertaken by the National Park Service. Period. Full Stop.

We have embarked on a radical new form of interpretation, discovered almost accidentally. It's something I might call democratic interpretation if I was even so presumptuous as to name it. I'm not sure it can be named by any one person. There is no interpreter, there is no audience. There is only We. The playing field is leveled.

We are a community learning from one another. We respect each other but are frank enough to ask tough questions honestly and openly. And the answers we share are at once profound and simple. There is no way any of us will forget this week's events.

In some way, this week hasn't been about the march from Selma to Montgomery as much as it has been about being human. We've been recreating a march, but that quickly evaporated as a goal. This week has been about people making real, lasting, meaningful connections with one another, understanding each other in a visceral way that's hard to categorize.

I will never forget the long talk about popcorn and rice that Aja and I shared as she unknowingly helped me keep my mind occupied through a painful mile or two. Or exploding fist-bumps with Hanif, or the fact he realized being a historian means you can study all of history, ricocheting from decade to decade and not just focusing on some boring myopic corner of the past. He left for home too soon in the march for me to ask what the Arabic writing on his arm said. I'll never forget hearing how gay folks aren't really as bad off as I thought in South Carolina. I'll never forget hearing about how you can fight for social justice on the clock, then go right back to doing it when you get back home at the end of the day. I'll never forget shaking hands and hugging and laughing. I'll never forget we have lived as a truly caring community these past few days.

I won't forget the causes I've seen dangling from placards on backpacks and plastered across protest signs in crayon and glitter either. "I march for Education." "Women's Rights are Human Rights." "I march for Change." "I walk because this is the 'America' I believe in."

But mostly I won't forget the simple fact that I am not alone. Today we crossed into the City of Montgomery. None of us ever could have achieved the momentous feat alone. We are not individuals; we are a true "We."

Sitting in the sanctuary at the City of Saint Jude tonight, swaying to the tune of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," I realized it was the first time I've been in a Catholic Mass since two days before my Mom's funeral. I also realized I would never be truly alone in this world - even when I'm hundreds of miles from the people I love. If I just put in the effort, I can have every single human beside me as a friend. All I need do is stop to strike up a conversation.

And I knew that for the last three miles on the long trek to the capitol tomorrow I would be with my family.

All 300 of us.