Giving Context to Words


Earlier this month, the United States commemorated the Fourth of July, a holiday marked by traditions such as fireworks, cookouts, parades, and NPR broadcasting a reading of the Declaration of Independence. This year, NPR added something new to the mix: tweeting, in addition to reading, the full text of the document.

With this social media endeavor came some surprising reactions. Several Trump supporters interpreted either the Declaration or particular lines therefrom as an affront to Trump and a justification for calls to defund NPR. When NPR tweeted references to the tyrannical English king, replies included, “Propaganda is that all you know how? Try supporting a man who wants to do something about the Injustice in this country”. Some individuals tweeted suspicions that NPR’s Twitter account had been hacked.

Most amusing was one tweet that, in response to an introductory tweet from NPR that linked to the spoken recording of the Declaration and an image of the centuries-old document, accused NPR of having “never been balanced on your show.” This tweeter was among those glad that NPR might be defunded.

These confused and angry tweets were roundly mocked by the media, and to be sure, it is telling that readers assumed Trump was the person being described by phrases such as: “a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Indeed, it seemed as though those most inclined to proclaim their patriotism were those most offended by the Declaration of Independence.

But at the same time, some confusion is understandable. The tweeting of the Declaration was neither the typical format for NPR tweets nor for reading this foundational text.

A single NPR tweet is normally a single headline, or perhaps a line of clickbait that does not provide all the basic information but that nonetheless reads as a complete thought or sentence. A person reading their own Twitter feed may see 2,000 different users’ tweets pop up as they are fired off, which can make the threads and conversations (not just in the case of NPR tweeting the Declaration) confusing to follow.

Moreover, catching just one or a few phrases from the Declaration of Independence does not convey the full meaning of the document. Reading a tiny fragment of the Declaration like “for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures” raises several basic questions: who is he? Who are they? What measures?

To read a few words from a book is not the same as to read the book. If you read just one sentence, you could end up reading the sentence that the villain utters, the antithesis to the author’s entire point. I am reminded of a piece of Harry Potter fan fiction I sent a friend years ago. What made this particular fanfic unique was that someone, rather than writing all new words, had taken existing lines from the series and rearranged them, so that they told a completely non-canonical story about Harry and Draco.

Some objections to NPR’s tweets were not objections to the Declaration itself, but simply to the format.  If you (being tech-savvier than I) have set your phone to alert you every time NPR tweets something, expecting each ding or beep to represent some piece of breaking news, getting 113 in a row that all quote the Declaration of Independence might annoy you.

Coffee Party director and writer Egberto Willies points out that reading NPR’s tweets of the Declaration as inciting insurrection was not necessarily that far off base. After all, he writes, “the Declaration of Independence is not a peace treaty. It is a document of war.”

So how do we give context to words like the text of the Declaration of Independence? Certainly, NPR was transparent in what it was doing, trying to use multiple media platforms to bring this old writing to modern audiences.

Music can provide context to words by turning them into lyrics, or otherwise using them as inspiration. Soomo’s parody of OneRepublic’s “Apologize” is all about the original Fourth of July, with the singer crooning (with or without a sense of irony?), “We colonized America, we won’t stand for tyranny.”

And of course, museums provide context to documents like the Declaration every day. Here in DC, you can see the original document on display at the National Archives. In 2012, I saw two exhibits at the National Museum of American History that delved into the life and ideas of Thomas Jefferson, helping to shine light on the complicated relationship he had with the ideals he enshrined in his most famous piece of writing.

Independence Hall, Governoer's Council Chamber

Independence Hall, Governoer’s Council Chamber

At Independence Hall and the Independence Visitor Center in Philadelphia, visitors can tour the building where the Declaration was adopted. The building’s Assembly Room, which also witnessed the debating and signing of the Constitution, is considered “one of the most historic rooms in the United States,” according to the National Park Service’s website.

Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia, devotes a section of its website to the Declaration of Independence and offers lesson plans on the subject. With the recent unearthing of Sally Hemings’s living quarters in the historic house museum, the juxtaposition of Jefferson’s life as a slaveholder and his declaration that all men are created equal can be presented to visitors with additional objects and a greater sense of place. For many years the location of a restroom for visitors, Sally Hemings’s room is perhaps, for better or worse, also among the most historic rooms in the United States.

Whether you visited a historic room or read a historic document or watched the fireworks, I hope your Fourth of July was everything you wanted and needed it to be.

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Addicted to Send Me SFMOMA


The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has re-launched Send Me SFMOMA, in which you can request an image of art from the museum’s collection by texting a request to 57251. Sadly, the bot is down right now due to a technical glitch. Here are a few of the works of art I’ve been texted:

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I Just Have a Lot of Feelings


It was less than a week ago that I posted about #MuseumWorkersSpeak. I had recently read all the group’s Tweetchats on Storify, and in my blog post, I wrote, “Though I was briefly involved in the local in-real-life group, it never seemed quite right to attend #MuseumWorkersSpeak meetings when I could no longer speak as a museum worker.”

One of the chats contained a Tweet suggesting that there should be an #ExMuseumWorkersSpeak. Then this week, on June 28 and June 29 respectively, two new pieces were shared in the Emerging Museum Professionals (EMP) Facebook group, titled “It’s Brave to Quit the Museum Field” by Claire Milldrum and “I’m Leaving the Archival Profession: It’s Better This Way” by Jarrett M. Drake.

These posts discuss reasons the authors left the museum profession and the closely related archival profession. Both posts have garnered comments on the posts themselves and in the EMP group. Milldrum’s post in particular has generated a lot of discussion among the EMPs, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe there is enough energy for an #ExMuseumWorkersSpeak space.

The two posts together, I think, raise several interesting questions for discussion:

  • To what extent are the issues raised unique to museums and archives, versus the working world as a whole? (I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.)
  • What does it mean for a field of work to be abusive?
  • How is a field distinct from a profession?
  • Does “writing for a blog” count as donating work? (Maybe if you’re writing as a guest on someone else’s blog? Or maybe if you’re writing a blog that people read? In my case, I feel that blogging is something I do for myself even if no one else reads it; it’s a way to engage with the museum field as a hobby, on my own terms.)
  • What role do museums and archives play in a larger picture of confronting the status quo, even as an individual institution’s role may be focused on presenting the way something is or was?
  • What is the role of choice in each individual ex-museum worker’s departure from the field? Is it a choice if one simply cannot afford to stay?
  • What is the role of former workers or would-be workers in any labor movement? What can we contribute to the conversation? Are we just the girl in Mean Girls who doesn’t even go to this school?

Milldrum plans to write a few more posts on the subject, based on an online survey she conducted of ex-museum workers. (I may have participated in this survey. I have taken a few online surveys about studying and working in the museum field, and I do not remember whether Milldrum’s was one of them.) I am greatly looking forward to reading what she and other fellow ex-museum workers have to say.

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Throwback Thursday: Museum Advocacy Day


In 2010, I volunteered at, and participated in, the American Alliance of Museums’ Museum Advocacy Day over the course of two days. I spent my first day at the National Building Museum, where I helped set out folders for participants, discussed talking points at a table with fellow museum people, and listened to speakers who were pumped about the good that museums do (and our ability to convince congressional staffers of these good things). A tiny picture of me, wearing a burgundy blazer and arranging the folders on a table, ended up in Museum magazine.

I was happy to stuff folders, but I felt nervous and even a little resentful about meeting with a congressional staffer. After all, I was studying to be a museum educator, not a lobbyist. (Never mind that careers don’t always work out as planned.)

In the end, the meeting wasn’t so bad. I had a fellow museum advocate, charismatic and experienced in this sort of endeavor, with me, and she did most of the talking. The staffer for Representative John Sarbanes (D-Md.), from the district where I grew up, was supportive throughout the conversation. Sarbanes is friendly to our cause, and my one contribution to our meeting with his staffer was to express our gratitude for Sarbanes’s No Child Left Inside initiative.

Now that it’s 2017 and “protesting is the new brunch,” I am still trying to find my advocacy footing. Sure, I’ve been to a few marches and meetings and resistance open mics, but I could be doing so much more. I’m not calling my delegate every day or carrying a sign every weekend. I am surely disappointing everyone who ever encouraged me to stand up for human health or human rights or education or the environment.

Part of the problem is that it’s simply overwhelming. Just reading the news can be exhausting, to say nothing of reading and acting.

I have often heard the recommendation to focus on one issue, follow it in depth, pursue it with a passion. Alas, I still haven’t chosen my issue. Do I want to pick up where I left off in 2010 and advocate for museums, parks, libraries? Or do I wish to tackle one of the many other issues out there? Can I focus on one subject without losing sight of the forest of progressive movements?

Hopefully, in six months or so, I’ll be able to report a greater amount of focus and productivity (and have time to visit and write about plenty of museums, too). Meanwhile, Museum Advocacy Day continues with a gathering every year, as important now as ever.

P.S. Authorized representatives from museums can sign this letter from the American Alliance of Museums to Congress advocating for a budget that supports museums and their many educational and economic contributions. Please note that the letter is meant to be signed by museums and organizations only, not individual practitioners, and the deadline to sign is Friday, July 21, 2017.

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The Creek’s Gonna Rise


This month, the Hudson River sloop Clearwater set sail from Croton, New York, bound for Washington, DC, with environmental education and advocacy events planned in DC and along the way. Facing potentially dangerous storms in the Atlantic Ocean, the boat turned around and returned home, though some of the planned events are still going on.

In the midst of climate change and rising sea levels and the recent US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, the scheduled events include a June 29 congressional briefing titled “Protecting America’s Water Amid Growing Threats.” Unfortunately, the education events planned onboard the Clearwater at the docks of a few different maritime museums in Maryland have been hampered by the weather.

Most commenters on Facebook were supportive of the decision to cut the sloop’s trip short, citing the safety of the crew as the top priority, and some people found a metaphor in the story. Despite challenges that might thwart one’s day-to-day plans, the fight for clean, healthy rivers – and the delivery of the “Cargo of Concern” messages from citizens to the federal government – would not be stopped.

Clearwater, and the Clearwater Festival held nearly every June since 1966, were both initiatives of the late folk singer Pete Seeger. The boat serves as what the website calls a “sailing classroom,” and the festival’s mission is, in part, to “to support Clearwater’s environmental research, education and advocacy efforts to help preserve and protect the Hudson River and its tributaries, as well as communities in the river valley.”

I attended this celebration of music, environmental education, and environmental advocacy a lifetime ago in 2004. At the time, I was most familiar with and interested in hearing Dar Williams, who arguably gave the crowd chills on a hot day during her performance of “Are You Out There?” I also saw performances by the Nields, Sol y Canto, and Catie Curtis. It was a picnic-and-chat-and-walk-around-with-your-friends event, rather than a sit-still-and-listen-attentively-to-the-music event, and I can’t say I remember much about the musical acts.

While looking back on this event and reading up on Clearwater’s current activities, however, I have been revisiting the music of the artists I heard that day. And I have gotten a bit obsessed with the Nields. My playlist these days is all Nields, all the time. I mean, they have a song about Pluto no longer being a planet.

laura pictures015

The Nields perform at the Clearwater Festival in 2004 along at Croton Point Park in New York.

Meanwhile, musicians and museums, environmental educators and advocates, all continue working hard today to ensure that Earth remains a habitable planet.

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Seven Recent Reads: #MuseumWorkersSpeak and Pride


As a disclaimer, I love visiting museums all year long, and the palpable love and support at the Capital Pride parade make me suspect that it is the DC area’s most favorite celebration of the year. That said, advocacy work requires turning a reflective eye inward. Among the fascinating chats, articles, and blog posts I’ve read on these subjects, I had trouble narrowing down this list to just seven examples.

  1. I recently read all the #MuseumWorkersSpeak chats listed at this Storify link. #MuseumWorkersSpeak really took off as a hashtag and a movement in 2015, a couple of years after I’d stopped being a museum worker. Though I was briefly involved in the local in-real-life group, it never seemed quite right to attend #MuseumWorkersSpeak meetings when I could no longer speak as a museum worker. Yet, in reading the chats, I saw so much that resonated, such as institutions with lofty missions and visions but less-than-lofty internal practices.
  2. Another chat not listed at the above link looks at celebrations of the 2015 Supreme Court decision on marriage equality through the lens of #MuseumWorkersSpeak. Among topics raised: even if a museum is welcoming and celebratory on social media, that doesn’t necessarily translate to being an inclusive workplace in terms of policies or atmosphere.

    all are welcome on the side of love

    All Are Welcome on the Side of Love. Multiple, diverse religious organizations were among the many participants in Capital Pride 2017.

  3. I have read this 2014 article from Jacobin on the insidious side of the “Do What You Love” (DWYL) mantra a few times, most recently when I saw it linked in one of the #MuseumWorkersSpeak chats. “By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness,” author Miya Tokumitsu writes, “DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it….The hallowed path of the entrepreneur always offers this way out of disadvantaged beginnings, excusing the rest of us for allowing those beginnings to be as miserable as they are.”
  4. By clicking from link to link beginning with a #MuseumWorkersSpeak chat, I ended up at this post at the Leadership Matters blog that discusses the issue of museum salaries. Among quite a few comments, one commenter reported needing both a trust fund and a high-earning spouse in order to stay in the museum field.
  5. On a related note, a 2014 post on the Center for the Future of Museums’ blog (managed as part of the American Alliance of Museums) stated: “we have, in effect, an oversupply of highly qualified people willing to underbid each other in return for the non-financial benefits of museum work.” The depression of wages seems inevitable when the lowest bid is nothing, with the proliferation of volunteers and unpaid interns.
  6. Mal Blum’s piece on being asked to donate a musical set to a Pride event in New York City echoes one thread from the #MuseumWorkersSpeak chats: being asked to work not for monetary currency, but for “exposure.” Blum points out another problematic layer in this particular instance: “New York City Pride is asking local LGBTQ artists to donate their labor to their massive event, while still presumably paying many thousands of dollars to a straight celebrity to headline it.”
  7. One #MuseumWorkersSpeak chat participant linked this blog post from 2013 on whether a museum studies degree will boost one’s chances of getting a museum job (in the context of the UK). Author Mark Carnall made this remark that stuck with me: that studying museums in a formal education setting helps students understand “why museums do the things they do rather than why the museum I work at does the things it does.” This perspective was one aspect of graduate school that I especially appreciated; it is also a distinction that can be applied to many fields of work beyond museums.
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Naming and Renaming


When I was in kindergarten and first grade, I attended an elementary school with an alcoholic beverage in its name. A few years later, a student group successfully pushed for a name change that would instead invoke nature’s bounty in local suburbia (nature which, incidentally, would be on its way out in favor of more development in a couple of decades). If my family had not moved, I may well have been part of the pro-name-change student group; it sounds like the kind of enrichment project I was doing in fourth grade.

I’m not sure it’s possible to rename a place without some opposition; after all, someone had some reason for coming up with the original name in the first place. Personally, I am not a big fan of renaming buildings to reflect corporate sponsorship. In other cases, the tensions in renaming come from questions around how we commemorate history.

In 2015, the Obama administration announced a name change to the tallest mountain in the United States, announcing that Alaska’s mountain known as Mount McKinley would henceforth be called Denali, like the national park encompassing it. The outcry came from elected officials as well as Donald Trump, while Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) praised the decision. Those who opposed the change seemed to ignore the fact that Denali was the original name of the mountain, given by the Athabascan people; the state of Alaska had been pushing for the name Denali for years; and monuments and a presidential library honor President McKinley, who had no real connection to Alaska, in his native state of Ohio.

Despite Trump’s 2015 tweet that he would change the name back to Mount McKinley if elected as president, current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke expressed his support for the name Denali at the beginning of the trip to Alaska that he began a few days ago.

Meanwhile, as cities in the south grapple with what to do with their Confederate statues and flags (leave them in place? Move them to a history museum?), names of buildings and streets are also under reconsideration even as far north as Connecticut. Earlier in 2017, Yale University made the decision to rename Calhoun College to honor the late Yale alumna Grace Murray Hopper, a computer scientist and Navy rear admiral who (unlike John C. Calhoun) did not call slavery “a positive good” or “the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.”

Student Dasia Moore’s article on Yale’s decision details the amount of thought and consideration that went into addressing the renaming question: “Beyond community engagement, the committee read through thousands of pages on the history and theory of public memory and renaming.” In the end, the committee developed a list of specific criteria for determining whether a name change is appropriate, with the university’s mission statement ultimately driving the discussion.

More local for me is Jefferson Davis Highway in Virginia. In northern Virginia, the city of Alexandria is prepared to rename its stretch of the highway, and an advisory group will in the near future seek proposals for new names.

Museums and parks will likely have to wrestle with these issues as contemporary eyes continue to give a longer look at names and monuments that do not reflect what are understood to be shared human values. There will be proposed name changes to parks and landmarks, and museums may well be providing a new and nuanced home to the statues that once stood on pedestals outside of city halls. Like Yale University made sure to do, I am hopeful that the organizations and agencies entrusted with these changes will look to their missions as they make these decisions.

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