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.