Vigil for Charlottesville

A few weeks ago, I was asked to give part of today’s Sunday morning address at my Sunday morning activity. The topic would be one of my favorites: my love of pets. I was daunted by the request, both the public speaking part and the preparation part, which would be adding something else to my plate. (My plate might not objectively have a lot on it, but it’s about as full as I can take. It’s really more like a little saucer.)

I apologetically declined, and in the end, my words wouldn’t have fit the bill anyway, as the talk was described as consisting of people speaking about “what (not whom) they love.”

Tonight, at a vigil/rally held in response to the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia and the deaths of one counter-protester (intentionally rammed into by a white supremacist’s car; many others were injured in this act of terrorism) and two police officers, I marveled at how quickly this gathering and other events around the country came together. A few of the speakers, with gratitude to the organizers and attendees, mentioned this fast response. Having recently said no giving a very brief address that I would have had weeks to write, I was all the more impressed.

People had about 24 hours to plan the vigils, spread the word, prepare remarks, and make signs. (Some of the signs I saw may have witnessed many marches and rallies over the last months and years. Others, making specific reference to Charlottesville and Heather Heyer, could not have been made before yesterday.) When two young women faced the crowd to sing “America the Beautiful,” another vigil attendee spontaneously joined them and accompanied them on guitar. Organizers of this Vigil for Justice not only brought everyone together, but also brought flowers and bottled water to give to the crowd.

We had gathered next to the World War II Memorial, surrounded by monuments. One man who spoke noted what I’d been thinking: the location, a memorial to those who died fighting Nazis, was a fitting place to denounce a new generation of Nazis. Several speakers and sign-holders alluded to relatives who had fought in World War II.


World War II Memorial, with Vigil for Justice taking place on the far side of the Reflecting Pool

When I was younger and I had grandparents who lived in South Carolina, my family often drove down to visit in summer or over the holidays, with stops for sightseeing along the way. I would get Charlottesville (Virginia), Charlotte (North Carolina), and Charleston (South Carolina) mixed up. These days we know these cities by the tragedies they’ve sustained in recent days and years.

This post has been full of personal reflections. Heather Heyer, who was killed by the car that slammed into the crowd of counter-protesters, was three years younger than me and had the same job title I have. I struggle mightily with reproof against people “centering themselves” in conversations on these issues, because everything I was taught in my training to be an educator indicated that making personal connections is a huge component of how humans learn.

That said, my own post processing my own thoughts on my own blog is a beginning, not an end. There are and will continue to be so many other voices for me to hear and read and learn from. There will be more statements condemning white supremacy from writers and religious organizations and museums and everyday people and elected officials, even if not from the president himself. There will be more events to attend, donations to make, and articles to share. There will be at least one million pieces of writing more worthy of being read than this post. (I welcome any recommendations for what to read.)

And there will, without a doubt, be more tragedies that demand our response and action. We can all hope there will be no more white nationalism, but pretending we have already achieved such a world doesn’t do us any good.


Posted in Photos | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

DC’s Quirky Temperance Fountain

It’s surrounded by museums (National Archives, United States Navy Memorial and Naval Heritage Center, and more if you walk just a block or two in almost any direction). It’s been called “a monstrosity of art.” It has been labeled the ugliest statue, as well as one of the most peaceful places, in Washington, DC. It’s a fountain, but it’s been dry for many decades.

The Temperance Fountain was given to the city by San Francisco dentist and temperance advocate Henry D. Cogswell in 1882. It was meant to be a sort of gift that keeps on giving, with ever-flowing clean drinking water that would offer the public an alternative to alcohol. The fountain also made water available for horses, so in a way it was also like a gas station for its time.


Real birds hanging out with the Temperance Fountain’s fake bird in 2005

Sculptures of animals (what I’ve seen described as a heron or a stork at the top, and fish or dolphins in the center) complete the fountain’s apparently polarizing aesthetic. Four virtues are emblazoned across the top: Hope, Faith, Charity, and Temperance.

Temperance referred to the movement that promoted abstention from alcohol, eventually leading to Prohibition from 1920 to 1933.

I think of Charity as Cogswell’s well-meaning commission and donation of water fountains to DC as well as several other cities. Whether or not one drinks alcohol, all humans and horses can benefit from free, potable water.

Cogswell must have had Hope and Faith that the waters would flow eternally, but alas, the city stopped providing ice for the water cooling system at some point. (I have not found any source that gives a specific year.) In 1945, a proposed Senate resolution to remove the fountain altogether died in committee.

Today, the fountain stands not as an object with any practical benefit, but instead as a sort of monument to temperance, a quirky DC landmark, and a memorial of what it once was when it bubbled for its human and equine visitors.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

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.

Posted in Articles and Books, Museum Visits (Other), Museums and Holidays, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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:

Posted in Museums and Holidays | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Articles and Books | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Throwback Thursday | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

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 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.


Posted in Museum Visits (Other) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment