Dianna Marder, writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, shares with us her experience collaborating with First Person Arts and the First Person Museum. She is an award-winning investigative reporter, covering courts, crime and City Hall for 18 years, before turning her talents to writing features about food and romance (which are not mutually exclusive topics). Look for her stories in the Image, Food and Daily Magazine sections.
I interviewed Dianna because of the major role she is playing at the new museum. She has been recording the stories of the objects our contributors have donated, which will then be included in the show.
On your involvement with FPA…
I came to know about First Person seven or eight years ago when, as a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, I was assigned to write about the annual Festival of Memoir and Documentary Arts. And the next year I wrote about the Story Slams.
I admired First Person’s belief in the intrinsic value of the human story, presented by the individual in whatever form feels right.
On the value of memoir…
I love personal histories and I’m intrigued by the power of memory and the opportunity memoir gives us to own our past and reflect on the lessons of our experience.
The way I look at it, memoir in whatever form, allows us to have some say in how we are remembered. And that’s crucial historically as well as personally because what is recorded is what we remember and that then becomes our truth .
So, in thinking about the various genocides the world has seen, for example, first person accounts give us the other side of what might be an otherwise biased account presented by the government in power at the time.
That’s part of memoir’s big picture.
On the power of the flea market…
The other part that matters so much to me is how we store our memories in objects: photographs, recipes, wooden spoons, whatever. For me, that is the lure of the flea market – it’s a repository of folk history, a place where I’m likely to see the objects I grew up with (matchbox cars, metal skate keys, mixing bowls).
I see these things and images rush to my mind. And I have a hunch the same thing is happening simultaneously for at least half the people there, making for a kind of collective experience. A flea market is a great place for memoirists or any writers who feels stuck. Go. Think of the flea market as a Julia Cameron style Artists’ Date.
I found my Pirate’s Treasure Chest Bank at a flea market a few years ago. I had one just like it as a child.
On her role in the museum…
In 2008, I think it was, I got permission from the paper (where I still work, after 25 glorious years. Really.) to lead memoir writing workshops for older women as part of First Person’s Community Writing project. Next, I expanded the idea, leading memoir writing workshops for lifers at Graterford prison.
I’m really grateful to First Person and to the Inquirer for giving me those chances. And that’s how I came to know Vicki Solot and she came to understand how I think and work. I was delighted when she offered me the opportunity to work on the Museum of the People.
There are so many aspects of the project: still photography, audio, video, design. And of course, the whole wonderful concept came from Vicki, who is inherently brilliant. I love the way she draws people into her magnetic field.
I guess my role in the Museum is that of story gatherer. I led a series of about six workshops – one with each of the community organizations that signed on to partner with First Person, in part to expand our reach in the city’s minority communities.
I worked with Dee Johnson, Angel Hogan and Katonya Mosley, whose names might be familiar to First Person fans because each is a poet, storyteller and teacher in her own right.
On the creative process…
Ten or so individuals attended each of our six or seven workshops where we guided them in writing short pieces – right on the spot – about an object that mattered to them. And that’s how we gathered a pool of stories.
Dee Johnson inspired us to compile the stories in chapbook form and give them to our partner organizations. It was such a good idea; they look terrific.
The workshop participants came out by choice for the most part and so many of them came with a memory in mind. Some of the workshops drew laughs and some were cathartic sob fests. But all the people we met were honest and eager and had rich histories to draw on.
I think they all caught on right away to the concept. It’s as if the practice of investing our things with meaning – making them sacred objects – is subconsciously universal.
The reporter in me knew we had to “vet” the individuals and their stories – to make sure the people knew what they were getting into by having themselves and their stories on public display. But I also needed to “flesh out” some of the stories, adding context without disturbing the storyteller’s voice.
Often, when I’m writing newspaper stories, particularly profiles, I find myself mimicking the individual’s cadence in order to convey the truest image of the person. And I don’t mean this in a demeaning way at all – it’s not like writing in slang or anything - it’s just a matter of stepping back as the writer and letting the individual tell the story.
As a part of their graduate seminar in material culture, the students were paired up with museum participants who have contributed an object to the museum. Each student keeps a blog page documenting their research findings. Their work is comprised of tracing the objects’ historical and cultural context along with their developing understanding of the personal relationship between the object and its owner. Below is a review of some of their blogs and the work they have produced so far. Their findings will accompany the items when the First Person Museum exhibit opens on November 5th.
Amy’s Birth certificate (Sara B.)
During her exploration of one woman’s birth certificate, Sara makes some important points about the changing role of this document and how it has, as a result of the battle to discredit and defend one man’s legitimacy, “earned a place in pop culture and political history.” The birth certificate has taken on additional meaning in recent years, in part thanks to our country’s growing susceptibility to the viral dissemination of crack-pot political theories. In the 2008 election cycle, Barack Obama’s citizenship came under constant assault from groups known as ‘Birthers’ for their mistrust of his status as a legal U.S. citizen. While this historical context is intriguing on its own, one of the most interesting things about the intersection between Amy’s certificate and President Obama’s is the issue of race, how both Amy and Obama are children of mixed-race parents and the different ways this is represented on their birth certificates. The way we use or fail to use language to define a person’s race is an important and powerful factor in everyone’s life. The historical research on these objects teaches us about how our country and other countries have chosen to use or not use race as an identifying marker at birth. And in this way we can use the more ‘ordinary’ birth certificate of a woman and possibly learn something about how we authorize and legitimize race and citizenship in our country.
Beth’s sock (Jenna)
Then there is the sock exhibit. A seemingly simple object, this story deserves the gentle attention it is receiving. Not only does this student provide some fascinating information about the history of socks as objects of function and fashion (even delving into the research on the recently discovered ancient footwear owned by a cave man named Otzi) but the story behind this specific sock centers on two women and a friendship that was cut tragically short, interrupting the completion of Beth’s sock. To read more you can visit Jenna’s blog page here.
Bill’s pen (Emily)
Emily does a great job conjuring up some of the associations we have with pens in our culture and how this may or may not relate to the specific personal story behind Bill’s pen. Particularly interesting are the gendered connotations that come with an expensive pen used for business or given in a business relationship. Throwing in a dash of psychology as well as gender deconstruction we are left to think about how something as small as a pen can say so much about a person’s job, education, gender and influence.
Catalina’s pan (Gail)
Gail writes about a pan native to the Dominican Republic called a cardero, which is commonly used to make sancocho, “a savory stew of multiple meats and root vegetables sometimes considered the national dish of the Dominican Republic.” What is interesting here is how an object like this, one that originates from a different culture than the one in which the research and project are conducted, is that it is difficult getting any ‘academic’ sources to detail its origins. What would it feel like to choose a most precious item to display in your country and have that country fail to provide any significant familiarity with its existence? Luckily, the sancocho does have some compelling historical information available- particularly the speculation that this dish was formed out of the only available food to slaves- their owner’s scraps. Gail does an excellent job exploring the social context of the stew and its role in Dominican culture as a social magnet of sorts, unifying families and communities around a meal as diverse and flavorful as their country.
To read the blogs mentioned above and to browse the entire collection, visit the Studies in American Culture blog at http://studiesinamericanmaterialculture.blogspot.com/.
- Morgan Berman
Aaron Goldblatt - designer of the First Person Museum- is a partner at Metcalfe Architecture and Design. After “just sort of falling into a job” at the Please Touch Museum here in Philly, Mr. Goldblatt became responsible for the collections, and eventually became the head of exhibits. He has since worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Wagner Free Institute of Science of Philadelphia. He has been a long-standing member of First Person Arts. His long-time friendship with our Executive Director, Vicki Solot won him an invitation to our brainstorming conversations that were held at the beginning of this project.
As he explained to me, the project was originally conceived as a reexamination of artistic explosion during economic upheaval. Mr. Goldblatt recalls that, while the original concept was much more amorphous, there was an initial interest in making it “have something to do with the economic melt down we were seeing around us, making connections between the explosion in the arts in the late 20s and early 30s with the great depression- and what was happening today- that was as far as their thinking had gone.”
When I heard this I thought about how people in hard economic times are often compelled by necessity to find new use for old things- to reinvent objects and the role they play in our lives. Taking an everyday item, or a personal possession and labeling it as an exhibited item is certainly an economical reinvention. This is definitely an identifiable theme in the new exhibit.
The formation process began by assembling historians and folklore types. Mr. Goldblatt recalls being the “only museum dork in the room.” He says that the idea of a ‘people’s museum’ was not on the table at the time but during the conversation he started talking about “the notion of value” and how the political right has been monopolizing the concept for a what seems like several generations. Appalled with our country’s penchant for equating value with money, Mr. Goldblatt labeled this tendency “bankrupt.” He sees this new museum as a chance to reestablish what is important to us as a people.
One source of inspiration was a project from the early 1980s called A People’s Museum.
“I’m told it had to do with gathering people together to exhibit “things of value to regular folks, not for artists or scholars, it was for the neighborhood.” It was this memory of an avant-garde museum that inspired First Person Arts to imagine their own people’s museum. Mr. Goldblatt recalls Vicki Solot calling him up after the meeting and asking if he objected to her using the idea, to which he responded “Of course not, its your project not mine.” To which she smartly replied, “It’s your project if you would like to work on it!”
One particularly interesting nugget is that we are not making a distinction between museum and exhibit in the project. As Mr. Goldblatt states: “It’s a museum in ideology, but practically it’s an exhibit. It’s an arcane distinction, who cares?” For most Philadelphians who have lived in a city over-flowing with art museums and galleries, this is fairly counter-intuitive leap. Mr. Goldblatt explained to me why this distinction is an important thing to consider and possible deconstruct, “Like most technical languages, its useful in that community, but outside that community it’s useless- it’s for the museum curators to make these walls- and they have reason to- but for most people technical languages are only useful within a very small sphere- and in some ways that’s one of the nice things about this project, its using some of the technical language of museology- i.e. objects in cases- and sabotaging it a little bit for the purpose of democracy- to democratize that formal language.”
I asked him later if he had ever worked on a project where the objects on display were of such a personal nature like they are in the new First Person Museum. His response perfectly illustrated how much we all overlook in most exhibits. When we peer through those thick glass panels, and read those little white placards illuminated by fluorescent bulbs- we only see one side of the story. He explained that all items are of a personal nature to someone. What is different here is that in this show “The fact of their personal nature is the point. Doing a project for Penn that has a collection of Native American objects- those are intensely personal objects- but that’s not the purpose of their being in the collection at that museum- that’s not the purpose of their study or display.” The First Person Museum is going to be directly addressing this common blindspot, pushing the boundaries of personal and public.
Assuming every project has a goal, and most project coordinators have their own particular idea of successfully achieving that goal, I asked our designer what success would look like to him regarding this project. He said he would consider the show a success when “a visitor looks at it and thinks about his or her stuff more than the stuff before them. The objects are less important than the relationship between a person’s story and the object.”
We talked about how the project has evolved, and how constraints have led to a new way of doing business. Mr. Goldblatt compared this museum to past projects, “Whats so different is how gorilla warfare like it is. Our time budget is way worse than our financial!” The rapidity of the project’s unfolding has fostered a frenzied environment of creation. He warns “Its going to be cool, but its a little bit of a risk.” Having not seen the objects puts this museum designer in new territory. He won’t be able to do the final graphics until the very last moment. “I love that, its a little scary, its a little higher risk than I’m used to working. It’s a prototype. Vicki has been saying that all along- what we have been working with as a prototype strategy works with the notion of democratizing the idea of a museum.”
- Morgan Berman
I interviewed Samara Freemark, a producer at Radio Diaries- a Manhattan-based organization filming some of the stories behind the displays of the First Person Museum. Their mission is to seek out subjects who might not otherwise have an opportunity to share themselves on such a large scale. Samara sees their work as a chance to “tell [stories] in an artful and engaging way so that they can resonate with the millions of people who listen to public radio. We help people share their own stories – and their lives – in their own words.” It’s much like the mission of First Person Arts, empowering the lives of regular folks, or as Samara put it: “To make the ordinary extraordinary.”
Radio Diaries started out with a low-tech, one-on-one approach- they gave tape recorders to ordinary people, and collected 30-40 hours of tape from each subject. In the beginning, Samara says, “[we] collaborate[d] with each diarist to edit the material into radio documentaries for NPR’s All Things Considered.” However, Radio Diaries has since branched out to include historical documentaries.
Samara says the group is headed toward combining the two main types of radio work with the goal of “tell[ing] historical stories from an intensely personal perspective. That’s our focus for the future.” This is clearly a perfect match for the First Person’s ‘museum of the people’ in which local historians and artists pair up with the display donors to tell the historical significance along with the personal to craft an interwoven tale behind each object.
I asked Samara about the people she interviews, and if she’s noticed any demographic patterns about who comes to it more or less naturally. Her answer, after balking to make any gross generalizations, was:
“I will say, though, that teenagers often seem to be particularly good, since they’re less conscious than adults about what they ‘should’ sound like on tape, and are more artless. I mean that as a serious compliment! As for who finds it the most difficult… to avoid giving offense, I’m going to blatantly dodge that question! I will say that the best interviewees are the ones who speak simply and honestly – the ones who speak as if they’re in a conversation, not as if they are presenting a paper at an academic conference or something.”
Like most documentarians, Radio Dairies is committed to helping develop new social consciousness, even social change when possible, which explains why Samara mentioned wanting to interview people living in war zones and under repressive governments as possible projects for the future. Samara also talked about how very personal, individual documentaries have touched on political issues. After all, what part of society is not in some way influenced by the political realm? As Samara put it, dusting off that handy Second Wave Feminist line- “The personal is political!”
We later discussed the overlap between her work helping people tell their stories for radio and the First Person Museum. One topic was the way people tell their stories. I was curious about what factors influence the manner or degree people communicate and how this might relate to the objects people chose to submit to the museum. Samara brought up an interesting point about privacy and a subject’s comfort level with their audience. She said, “Everyone has a different idea of what is appropriate to share in front of an audience of strangers, of how much of their personal lives they’re willing to disclose to an audience. So I think you’ll see that emerge in what objects people chose to submit.” This will definitely be something to keep in mind when viewing the exhibits this fall. In what ways has the donor allowed us into their lives? In what ways are we still held back or our vision of the whole obscured?”
In our conversation Samara and I mused on the philosophical side of the audio-visual spectrum. I asked her about our culture’s relationship with radio as a medium of communication and where it fits into our supersaturated visual lives. Now that I am used to my glorious car-free lifestyle in Center City, I rarely listen to the radio. Samara suggested that I, and others like me, may be missing out! In fact, she said that because radio is a “more limited [medium] it can make people stop and really concentrate on what they’re hearing in a way that they don’t when they’re distracted by other senses being stimulated. People approach information in totally different ways depending on what the medium is.” When I think about the hours I’ve spent with the TV talking to itself while I Gchat on my laptop, making dinner, and texting to multiple people at once- wait what was I saying?
Samara and I both agree that museums are beginning to embrace the power of audio, but it is particularly exciting to see what will come from the First Person Museum’s show with the elevated role that audio will play- enhancing the displays and their messages.
I asked Samara if she could submit an object to the museum what would it be and why. She came up with an old road atlas that she has kept around for unknown reasons. She figures it represents her freedom, “or something like that.”
Personally, I would submit my stuffed deer whom I named Filene after Bambi’s girlfriend from the Disney classic of the same name. I think it would speak to the broader influence Disney had on America’s collective unconscious during childhood- particularly the influence of the absent (or murdered) mother-figures… or maybe not.
Finally, I asked Samara for a preview of the objects she and the folks at Radio Diaries are documenting for the First Person Museum. I wanted to know in particular what appealed to her about these objects and why they make good subjects for radio. Here is her response:
“There’s a wedding ring from a woman whose story I loved because this wedding ring was actually a remnant left over from a bad marriage, and I loved that she hung on to it. There’s a pair of men’s boxer shots from a woman – they belonged to her son, and she ended up with them when he was sent to jail. She used to put them on and walk around her house. I loved that image. There’s a baby outfit from a girl who’s gay but who got pregnant as a teenager – I loved that juxtaposition. And a Mexican shawl that’s the last thing a woman was given by her mother, who was dying at the time. What I liked about that story was that her mother had worn that shawl around to prim faculty parties in the 1950s – a little act of rebellion.”
These great objects, and the stories behind them will be available at grand opening of the First Person Museum on November 5th at the Painted Bride Art Center.
- Morgan Berman