#MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 (Post 4)

After far too long a wait, I’ve arrived at the final post of my #MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 series. If you haven’t read the previous posts, I suggest you start here for context.

 

After the Children’s Museum, I went back out into the rain– regretting not having carried an umbrella– and walked the several blocks to the Institute of Contemporary Art.

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that all the art was on the top floor, but eventually I made it up. Looking at the different exhibits, I was especially taken with the exhibition of pieces by Nari Ward, which I found deeply resonant and aesthetically pleasing all at once.

Three sisters…

A post shared by Tad (@retius) on

I noted the stark difference in the appearance of this museum from the one I attended the day before. Great white walls and people quietly shuffling about. Quite different from the wonderful tumult of the Children’s Museum… Even around pieces that were very playful.

I recently started working at the Edward M Kennedy Institute for the US Senate, a place where we’re trying to educate visitors about democracy– something that tends to be very noisy and even bumptious at times, which is something that we would like to convey to our visitors.

The decor of the main area is a bit monochromatic, however:

The space has potential to convey that vibrancy that is a cornerstone of democracy. I’m wondering how little pops of color could make a difference in the mood and tone of the space. I jokingly talk with my coworkers about erecting a “giant pink statue of Ted Kennedy” in the lobby area, perhaps a commission from Katharina Fritsch?

More realistically, I just wonder about what effects we could create with some movable casing or something along those lines in bright colors: maybe something in a Nickelodeon orange? The serious grey-and-blue tones of the institute would still permeate, but maybe something that, while the topic we are covering is very serious, we are encouraging our visitors to engage in serious play to learn a little more deeply about the topic.

Finally, as a capstone to my day of nonstop museums, I went to a #Museumhive event, where the (virtual) guest of honor was the awesome museum educator Emily Graslie.

I was, by that point, basically tweeted out, but I did share one comment that Emily made, because I thought it was awesome and hilarious and actually insightful, and was actually retweeted by Emily, which was a nerdy little fanboy moment.


#MuseumWalkabout First Post

#MuseumWalkabout Second Post

#MuseumWalkabout Third Post

#MuseumWalkabout Fourth Post

#MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 (Post 3)

Third post recounting my adventures during #MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017, during which I attempted to hit as many museums as I could in a single day, and to fill all interstitial time with museum-related stuff. Post 1 can be found here, and Post 2 can be found here. I’d recommend starting from the beginning.

Having noted the ads for the Tea Party Museum and Ships, I thought for a moment about checking it out. It had been on my original “maybe” list for the day.

 

But because part of the museum experience is outdoors, and the rain hadn’t let up, I decided not to. I did snap the above pic, and noted an awesome piece of programming that I’d love to check out some time:

 

 

Every museum is desperately chasing the Millennials. This might be a bit much for some millennials– my millennial wife said she wouldn’t go if I paid her– but to me, it combines so many great attractors. Food and booze– things people are already going out and paying for anyway. Dancing and singing. A little history lesson. And millennials keep telling museums– both with their attendance and with how they respond to visitor surveys– that activities that you can do with a couple friends are very important to them as an age cohort.

With the right (slightly nerdy, adventurous about food, enjoy a drink) friends, this would be amazing.

Now it's time for a freakin' Boston Landmark!

A post shared by Tad (@retius) on

 

So, I went on to the Boston Children’s Museum.

I’d seen the Hood Milk bottle before, and heard a lot of positive things about the museum from people, but I’d never been before, not having children, and preferring to go to parks and restaurants when visiting my friends who do.

That said, it was an amazing experience. Bright, colorful, lots of different types of activities and exhibits… I saw a girl do a back handspring in one exhibit, seemingly just because she had the space. The Children’s Museum engaged kids at all sorts of levels, inviting the most un-museum-like anarchy… and everyone seemed to be having a blast, kids and parents alike.

And it was loud. Woo boy, was it loud.

There’s a certain developmental period during which many children, when really enjoying themselves, just run around screaming. This developmental stage was well-represented.

I was really struck by how much fun the adults who let themselves engage with the exhibits and interactives were having. While the learning outcomes are designed for young people, the actions that help us learn that mastery of the world (whether splashing water, building with blocks, or learning about basic science), never fully lose their FUN.

I sat on the floor in a room full of blocks, building a tower myself, and watched the parents who were aiding their children, or even just working beside them– their faces looked engaged. They were having a grand old time. Then I watched the parents sitting on the benches along the wall– they weren’t engaged. They weren’t having fun. This was something their kids enjoyed, and they… they sort of sat, and watched, and looked tired.

After some participant-observer time, I eventually got sucked completely into participant mode. The tower I built was wicked tall, yo.

My masterpiece of block engineering isn’t in the picture, but these are the blocks in question:

#Keva #blocks are amazing.

A post shared by Tad (@retius) on

Because I was livetweeting my observations throughout the day, I would occasionally get feedback from people that shaped my thinking over the course of my walkabout. Around this point, my old friend and former roommate Brendan, who now works for the Association of Children’s Museums, made a very apt observation:

There was something that the Boston Children’s Museum did very well that you seldom see at adult- or even family-centric museums, that I really enjoyed and appreciated: they not only designed exhibits with specific learning outcomes in mind– many if not all museums do that– but they actually center those learning outcomes, literally rendering them visible on the wall:

This was my biggest takeaway from the Children’s Museum. They were very deliberate about the learning outcomes of each exhibit. Which makes sense– people take their kids to children’s museums because they offer a fun opportunity for learning. It always has to be more overt than, say, a playground or park. Because those are free and hyperlocal. To get parents to come with children across town, and plunk down money… they need to be doing more than just playing.

But the thing is, children are never “just playing.” Ludic learning is always inherently a part of play for kids. (And for adults, too, if you can just get them to get over themselves and play.)  The service that the Children’s Museum offers is twofold: a safe, fun place for children to play, explore, and learn, but even more importantly, a place for parents to learn about their kid, to have the process of their child’s learning highlighted and explicated for them. The second part is the real value.

But in doing that, they’re doing something really interesting: they’re putting visitor experience itself on display. Imagine other museums doing that. An exhibit that reflects your experience as a museum-goer back to you, in a way… Points you toward thinking about how you interact with an exhibit and what that can tell you about you.

Museum-going, even for us grown-ups, is never only about learning about the outside world. It seems to me that highlighting that– giving visitors a guide for how to learn about themselves and their friends from an exhibit… That’s a good model for proving the value of your museum to the visitor.

After all, the Children’s Museum is, for the children who visit it, basically a giant, amazing playground. The parents pay to have their child’s play framed for them.

Next up: Final post in the series. The ICA and MuseumHive!!!


#MuseumWalkabout First Post

#MuseumWalkabout Second Post

#MuseumWalkabout Third Post

#MuseumWalkabout Fourth Post

#MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 (Post 3)

Third post recounting my adventures during #MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017, during which I attempted to hit as many museums as I could in a single day, and to fill all interstitial time with museum-related stuff. Post 1 can be found here, and Post 2 can be found here. I’d recommend starting from the beginning.

Having noted the ads for the Tea Party Museum and Ships, I thought for a moment about checking it out. It had been on my original “maybe” list for the day.

 

But because part of the museum experience is outdoors, and the rain hadn’t let up, I decided not to. I did snap the above pic, and noted an awesome piece of programming that I’d love to check out some time:

 

 

Every museum is desperately chasing the Millennials. This might be a bit much for some millennials– my millennial wife said she wouldn’t go if I paid her– but to me, it combines so many great attractors. Food and booze– things people are already going out and paying for anyway. Dancing and singing. A little history lesson. And millennials keep telling museums– both with their attendance and with how they respond to visitor surveys– that activities that you can do with a couple friends are very important to them as an age cohort.

With the right (slightly nerdy, adventurous about food, enjoy a drink) friends, this would be amazing.

Now it's time for a freakin' Boston Landmark!

A post shared by Tad (@retius) on

 

So, I went on to the Boston Children’s Museum.

I’d seen the Hood Milk bottle before, and heard a lot of positive things about the museum from people, but I’d never been before, not having children, and preferring to go to parks and restaurants when visiting my friends who do.

That said, it was an amazing experience. Bright, colorful, lots of different types of activities and exhibits… I saw a girl do a back handspring in one exhibit, seemingly just because she had the space. The Children’s Museum engaged kids at all sorts of levels, inviting the most un-museum-like anarchy… and everyone seemed to be having a blast, kids and parents alike.

And it was loud. Woo boy, was it loud.

There’s a certain developmental period during which many children, when really enjoying themselves, just run around screaming. This developmental stage was well-represented.

I was really struck by how much fun the adults who let themselves engage with the exhibits and interactives were having. While the learning outcomes are designed for young people, the actions that help us learn that mastery of the world (whether splashing water, building with blocks, or learning about basic science), never fully lose their FUN.

I sat on the floor in a room full of blocks, building a tower myself, and watched the parents who were aiding their children, or even just working beside them– their faces looked engaged. They were having a grand old time. Then I watched the parents sitting on the benches along the wall– they weren’t engaged. They weren’t having fun. This was something their kids enjoyed, and they… they sort of sat, and watched, and looked tired.

After some participant-observer time, I eventually got sucked completely into participant mode. The tower I built was wicked tall, yo.

My masterpiece of block engineering isn’t in the picture, but these are the blocks in question:

#Keva #blocks are amazing.

A post shared by Tad (@retius) on

Because I was livetweeting my observations throughout the day, I would occasionally get feedback from people that shaped my thinking over the course of my walkabout. Around this point, my old friend and former roommate Brendan, who now works for the Association of Children’s Museums, made a very apt observation:

There was something that the Boston Children’s Museum did very well that you seldom see at adult- or even family-centric museums, that I really enjoyed and appreciated: they not only designed exhibits with specific learning outcomes in mind– many if not all museums do that– but they actually center those learning outcomes, literally rendering them visible on the wall:

This was my biggest takeaway from the Children’s Museum. They were very deliberate about the learning outcomes of each exhibit. Which makes sense– people take their kids to children’s museums because they offer a fun opportunity for learning. It always has to be more overt than, say, a playground or park. Because those are free and hyperlocal. To get parents to come with children across town, and plunk down money… they need to be doing more than just playing.

But the thing is, children are never “just playing.” Ludic learning is always inherently a part of play for kids. (And for adults, too, if you can just get them to get over themselves and play.)  The service that the Children’s Museum offers is twofold: a safe, fun place for children to play, explore, and learn, but even more importantly, a place for parents to learn about their kid, to have the process of their child’s learning highlighted and explicated for them. The second part is the real value.

But in doing that, they’re doing something really interesting: they’re putting visitor experience itself on display. Imagine other museums doing that. An exhibit that reflects your experience as a museum-goer back to you, in a way… Points you toward thinking about how you interact with an exhibit and what that can tell you about you.

Museum-going, even for us grown-ups, is never only about learning about the outside world. It seems to me that highlighting that– giving visitors a guide for how to learn about themselves and their friends from an exhibit… That’s a good model for proving the value of your museum to the visitor.

After all, the Children’s Museum is, for the children who visit it, basically a giant, amazing playground. The parents pay to have their child’s play framed for them.

Next up: Final post in the series. The ICA and MuseumHive!!!


#MuseumWalkabout First Post

#MuseumWalkabout Second Post

#MuseumWalkabout Third Post

#MuseumWalkabout Fourth Post

#MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 (Post 2)

This is my second post about what I’m calling, informally, #MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017. Read here for the first part.

 

Design Museum Boston may have been the biggest disappointment of my #MuseumWalkabout. Which is a shame– it’s a neat concept. A “nomadic museum” that does design-based installations throughout the city. The museum as a truly integrated element of the urban landscape. So much to love there. Unfortunately…

 

I don’t know if there was once a gift shop at that location, or even a temporary one, or if they have offices in that building that weren’t marked or accessible, or what. But Google, my dear, dear Google, misled me. I am disappoint.

(True story– I was fiercely loyal to Mapquest even after Google Maps came out, until Mapquest gave me bad directions driving to a friend’s funeral in Cincinnati, and I have never used it since. Mapping services are so integral to our lives, so important, that one bad user experience can put us off them forever. This isn’t nearly in the neighborhood of that experience, but it does make me wonder– how do you report to Google that a location they’re reporting doesn’t exist?)

There was nothing but a (fairly nice and interesting) window display. I realized I was very near the Rose Kennedy Greenway, and decided to watch some people interact with some public art. The first piece I went to was “The Meeting House” by Mark Reigelman. The piece has some folding chairs next to it that seemed like good attractors. A punk mother sat and rocked her infant’s stroller. Two finance bros had a chat. Some kids were running around, and of course there were several teens and tourists with cell phones out, taking pictures and selfies. (No judgement, obviously…)

And then the rain picked up.

And then the rain was almost pouring, all within minutes.

I ducked into the Boston Intercontinental, which I’d been in once before when I needed a quiet place near South Station to take a call from a journalist. I also remembered from that time that the hotel had a large number of outlets, which was good, because my phone was already low on juice.

 

I’d already been thinking about how advertising and publicity prime visitors for what sort of experience they could expect at your museum, and these banner ads– strangely encased, for some reason– let you know that the Boston Tea Party Museum And Ships were a local historical point of interest (no mention of the fact that they’re not in the correct location at all, because of landfill), and right around the corner from the Intercontinental.

I had a delicious A.B.C.D.E.L.T sandwich at RumBa, one of the hotel’s several bars and restaurants, and charged my phone while reading about– of course– museums.

Link for the curious. We’ve been debating the pros and cons of dialog-focused exhibits where I work, and it was passed on to me via a coworker.

My phone was still relatively low, so I moved on to a second article:

Another link for the curious. Readers Digest version: it can be done, somewhat imperfectly, but better than you might think, but within limitations. You’ll probably have to create a finding aid elsewhere, whether in Archivists’ Toolkit or a Word doc.

And if anyone reading this really was legitimately curious, get in touch with me and I can arrange to cook you dinner, because you’re the kind of person my wife and I don’t meet enough of.

Next up: The Boston Children’s Museum!!!

 


#MuseumWalkabout First Post

#MuseumWalkabout Second Post

#MuseumWalkabout Third Post

#MuseumWalkabout Fourth Post

#MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 (Post 1)

NB: Upon beginning to write this post, I realized it was much longer than I could reasonably expect someone else to read. For this reason, I will be writing posts about yesterday for the next few days.

A lot of my department was out yesterday, and I’m trying to do a lot of thinking about museums and exhibits, what works and why, so I decided to visit several museums in quick succession– a sort of “Museum Walkabout.” I also decided to broadcast my activities over the course of the day over social media.  I’m using this space to bring those posts together.

I wanted to visit as many museums as I could take in. I focused on Boston’s busy and developing waterfront district.

I awoke at 6:30, and by 7:30 I was plugging away on email and other tasks I’d perform later in the day if I’d been going into the office.

After a couple hours of that, I walked to the train station. I was struck, even while walking in my town, by how much Americana-themed stuff is around Boston. Working at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, a lot of designers tend to advocate for more Americana in our design.

But the greater Boston area is so overwhelmed with Americana. Even in, like, mens’ rooms and stuff. It’s almost as bad as it is in Philadelphia, here. And to me, that’s not creating a visual identity. It’s just more of the same.

 

Thinking about that as I walked to the train station, I plopped into my seat on the train and began to read an article by John Falk that a friend had recently given me.

#MuseumWalkabout #NowReading

A post shared by Tad (@retius) on

It got me thinking about a class I took with Brenda Dervin at Ohio State years ago:

Falk talks about visitors to museums having “identity related needs” that motivate their visits to museums. The museum is somewhere we come to reflect the world to us, but we expect it to do so in ways that address how we see ourselves and why we visit.

Something  about this reminds me of what Dr. Dervin talked about– about sensemaking being how people bridge gaps in understanding… that it’s always, when multiple people are involved, a dialogical process…

Brenda Dervin’s illustration of her sensemaking methodology.

As I continued to read, Falk gave a typology of different sorts of visitors: Explorers, Facilitators, Spiritual Pilgrims, etc.

This got me thinking about how we prime the pump, and let people know what kind of museum experience they’re looking for:

A museum that doesn’t have strong branding, a strong identity– and especially any museum that isn’t of a standard type (“Art Museum,” “Natural History Museum,” etc.)– the visitor won’t know how to expect to behave when they get there. They won’t know what kind of experience to expect. They might even not come, because they don’t understand what kind of visitor experience they will have, and figure they’re not missing anything.

I’m someone who works in the nonprofit sector. Almost always have been. Even when I worked as a temp, I requested only temp work at nonprofits. I instinctively bristle when people start talking about “branding” and “messaging” and “identity” as a corporate concept. But at the end of the day, museums need these things.

I got off the train at North Station, and headed through the streets of the North End until I arrived at my first destination:

First stop on #MuseumWalkabout. I don't know if I have ever been….

A post shared by Tad (@retius) on

I have to admit, my initial impression of the Paul Revere House wasn’t especially positive. Well, it was cheap at five dollars, so that impression was very good. But my first impression upon entering the house was that it very much was reflective of typical Historic House Museum problems: No photos! No Touching! There was one small pot that an (of course costumed) interpreter told us belonged to Paul Revere, and a child’s chair that belonged to his son.

Rather than this transporting me back in time to the days of the Revere clan, it just made me look around, practice unenjoyable habits of discernment: how much is real or original? How much is period? How much is 20th century repro? We as visitors were held back behind a line, unable to engage with the house. And so we shuffled along to the next room.

Which was even worse– plastic food on the table only further distanced me from the “historic” experience of the house. We went up a narrow stairwell– don’t open that door! You can’t go on the third floor!– and when we had arrived on the second floor, we’d traveled in time at least a generation or two. I think it was Early Republic era, but I wouldn’t swear to it. I’d checked out.

Despite the fact that we were on the second floor, a very modern door took us out to a catwalk, which connected to a second building, where there were modern restrooms and some small exhibits. There, I found the first thing I got really excited about:

The diorama of Revere’s workshop let me do what the historic house seemed bound and determined not to let me do: to imagine the living past, to think about the people and the lifeways that made this location relevant. I took photos of it, pressing my cell phone to the glass. It was the first thing I’d gotten really excited about.

And this was a theme that reoccurred to me several times during the course of the day, in different forms: the idea that in some ways, simulation can be more powerful than recreation. Our inner critic always tries to pick at supposed verisimilitude. It’s vexing, like an itchy scab.

Just as with robots and computer animation, it seems like it’s better to stay clearly on the right side of the uncanny valley when trying to give people an experience that’s evocative of the past.

Or, to put it another way:

Then I went outside, where I found the most exciting thing on the grounds– and the biggest missed opportunity:

 

…I realize that they were basically excavating an area that had been an alley used for drainage, but here was real archeological work being done on site, looking for real items, lost to history! I couldn’t believe they weren’t highlighting it more. They should be running programs around it, and setting up some seating so that people could sit and observe the work.

That said, the volunteer I talked to was very friendly and helpful, and was pleased as punch to talk about the project.

Next: Stop 2: The Boston Design Museum.


#MuseumWalkabout First Post

#MuseumWalkabout Second Post

#MuseumWalkabout Third Post

#MuseumWalkabout Fourth Post

#MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 (Post 1)

NB: Upon beginning to write this post, I realized it was much longer than I could reasonably expect someone else to read. For this reason, I will be writing posts about yesterday for the next few days.

A lot of my department was out yesterday, and I’m trying to do a lot of thinking about museums and exhibits, what works and why, so I decided to visit several museums in quick succession– a sort of “Museum Walkabout.” I also decided to broadcast my activities over the course of the day over social media.  I’m using this space to bring those posts together.

I wanted to visit as many museums as I could take in. I focused on Boston’s busy and developing waterfront district.

I awoke at 6:30, and by 7:30 I was plugging away on email and other tasks I’d perform later in the day if I’d been going into the office.

After a couple hours of that, I walked to the train station. I was struck, even while walking in my town, by how much Americana-themed stuff is around Boston. Working at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, a lot of designers tend to advocate for more Americana in our design.

But the greater Boston area is so overwhelmed with Americana. Even in, like, mens’ rooms and stuff. It’s almost as bad as it is in Philadelphia, here. And to me, that’s not creating a visual identity. It’s just more of the same.

 

Thinking about that as I walked to the train station, I plopped into my seat on the train and began to read an article by John Falk that a friend had recently given me.

#MuseumWalkabout #NowReading

A post shared by Tad (@retius) on

It got me thinking about a class I took with Brenda Dervin at Ohio State years ago:

Falk talks about visitors to museums having “identity related needs” that motivate their visits to museums. The museum is somewhere we come to reflect the world to us, but we expect it to do so in ways that address how we see ourselves and why we visit.

Something  about this reminds me of what Dr. Dervin talked about– about sensemaking being how people bridge gaps in understanding… that it’s always, when multiple people are involved, a dialogical process…

Brenda Dervin’s illustration of her sensemaking methodology.

As I continued to read, Falk gave a typology of different sorts of visitors: Explorers, Facilitators, Spiritual Pilgrims, etc.

This got me thinking about how we prime the pump, and let people know what kind of museum experience they’re looking for:

A museum that doesn’t have strong branding, a strong identity– and especially any museum that isn’t of a standard type (“Art Museum,” “Natural History Museum,” etc.)– the visitor won’t know how to expect to behave when they get there. They won’t know what kind of experience to expect. They might even not come, because they don’t understand what kind of visitor experience they will have, and figure they’re not missing anything.

I’m someone who works in the nonprofit sector. Almost always have been. Even when I worked as a temp, I requested only temp work at nonprofits. I instinctively bristle when people start talking about “branding” and “messaging” and “identity” as a corporate concept. But at the end of the day, museums need these things.

I got off the train at North Station, and headed through the streets of the North End until I arrived at my first destination:

First stop on #MuseumWalkabout. I don't know if I have ever been….

A post shared by Tad (@retius) on

I have to admit, my initial impression of the Paul Revere House wasn’t especially positive. Well, it was cheap at five dollars, so that impression was very good. But my first impression upon entering the house was that it very much was reflective of typical Historic House Museum problems: No photos! No Touching! There was one small pot that an (of course costumed) interpreter told us belonged to Paul Revere, and a child’s chair that belonged to his son.

Rather than this transporting me back in time to the days of the Revere clan, it just made me look around, practice unenjoyable habits of discernment: how much is real or original? How much is period? How much is 20th century repro? We as visitors were held back behind a line, unable to engage with the house. And so we shuffled along to the next room.

Which was even worse– plastic food on the table only further distanced me from the “historic” experience of the house. We went up a narrow stairwell– don’t open that door! You can’t go on the third floor!– and when we had arrived on the second floor, we’d traveled in time at least a generation or two. I think it was Early Republic era, but I wouldn’t swear to it. I’d checked out.

Despite the fact that we were on the second floor, a very modern door took us out to a catwalk, which connected to a second building, where there were modern restrooms and some small exhibits. There, I found the first thing I got really excited about:

The diorama of Revere’s workshop let me do what the historic house seemed bound and determined not to let me do: to imagine the living past, to think about the people and the lifeways that made this location relevant. I took photos of it, pressing my cell phone to the glass. It was the first thing I’d gotten really excited about.

And this was a theme that reoccurred to me several times during the course of the day, in different forms: the idea that in some ways, simulation can be more powerful than recreation. Our inner critic always tries to pick at supposed verisimilitude. It’s vexing, like an itchy scab.

Just as with robots and computer animation, it seems like it’s better to stay clearly on the right side of the uncanny valley when trying to give people an experience that’s evocative of the past.

Or, to put it another way:

Then I went outside, where I found the most exciting thing on the grounds– and the biggest missed opportunity:

 

…I realize that they were basically excavating an area that had been an alley used for drainage, but here was real archeological work being done on site, looking for real items, lost to history! I couldn’t believe they weren’t highlighting it more. They should be running programs around it, and setting up some seating so that people could sit and observe the work.

That said, the volunteer I talked to was very friendly and helpful, and was pleased as punch to talk about the project.

Next: Stop 2: The Boston Design Museum.


#MuseumWalkabout First Post

#MuseumWalkabout Second Post

#MuseumWalkabout Third Post

#MuseumWalkabout Fourth Post

CFP– Desegregation of Public Schools. Possible Stipend!

For immediate distribution. Please share with anyone you think may be interested.

The Center for Local History at Arlington Public Library is seeking guest bloggers to help promote and support Project DAPS—an ongoing digital history project to disseminate records, images, oral histories and other materials related to the desegregation of Arlington, Virginia’s public schools.

Project DAPS is a unique online exhibition and searchable database of archival materials related to the legal and moral battles that culminated with four courageous African American students taking their seats on Feb. 2, 1959 at Arlington’s Stratford Junior High School. The project explores the full historic narrative, starting with Arlington’s rapid growth of the 1940s through the 1970s.

Project DAPS is culled from the holdings of the Arlington Public Library’s Community Archives in the Center for Local History and includes thousands of photos, documents and recordings. Many items were only recently digitized. There are currently thousands of pages of documents online, and more are being added all the time.

We are looking for proposals from grad students, librarians, archivists, professors, and local historians for blog posts that model for users how Project DAPS can be used to conduct or supplement research about a variety of topics that intersect with the desegregation of public schools in Virginia and the DC area.

We have secured a limited number of $200 stipends for people who write blog posts to support this project. Stipends will be awarded on a rolling basis.

Interested parties should identify several documents that interest them, write up a brief paragraph about the topic they would like to discuss, and provide a few sentences of biography on their academic or research background, and send them to Judith Knudsen at jknuds (at) arlingtonva.us

Unknown Knowns?

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.Donald Rumsfeld, 12 February 2002. Emphasis added.

I’ve loved the above quote from Donald Rumsfeld for a long time. It hits you hard like a zen koan: upon first hearing it, you think it’s nonsensical, possibly even word salad. But after further reflection, it strikes you as actually quite profound, and even eloquent.

At least that was my response to it. If you responded differently, you might just want to stop reading now, because the rest of this post might not be for you.

Anyway, it’s a quote that I find myself returning to again and again, even 15 years (yikes!) after Rumsfeld first said it. And I thought of it today, when I watched a recent episode of Tom Scott’s Youtube series “Things You Might Not Know.”

Click on this image to go to Things You Might Not Know’s video “You Can Hear The Difference Between Hot and Cold Water”

This video struck me because it made really explicit, to me, the existence of the one category of “unknown” Rumsfeld doesn’t address: there are unknown knowns. To break it down in simple terms, like Donnie did, there are things that we know that we might not even be aware of knowing.

This isn’t exactly earth-shattering news. What I’m talking about is very similar—though subtly different—from the idea of “tacit knowledge” that Michael Polanyi first brought up in his books Personal Knowledge and The Tacit Dimension, first published in the 50s and 60s. Tacit knowledge refers to the idea that there are some things we know that we don’t often explicitly explain or codify,  and for that reason may not know how to adequately explain. Tacit knowledge is often linked to a sense of “know-how,” an operational understanding, a series of techniques and approaches.

Back to the video: the title makes a statement that I initially thought was absurd. You can tell the difference between hot and cold water by listening? How? Why? Huh? I watched the video expecting to gain explicit knowledge, a little “trick,” a “life hack.”

And then the presenter pours water. From two identical pitchers, into two identical mugs. They don’t show it happening, so as not to give you any visual clues. Until the moment the pouring began, I was waiting to hear the trick. I didn’t expect to have any idea which was which. But when I heard the water being poured, I just instinctively knew. One just sounded “cold.” The other sounded “warm.”

I realized that I had encountered something even deeper than “tacit knowledge.” I had discovered, within myself, a piece of tacit knowledge that I wasn’t even aware I possessed. When I read the title, it had actually struck me as absurd. You can’t tell the temperature of water from how it sounds! But there it was. I could. I knew that already, tacitly, without even knowing that I knew it.

There are unknown knowns.

 

Romneycare: A Counterfactual

Editorial cartoon: Barak Obama and Mitt Romney hold hands with identical children, one labeled “Obamacare” and one labeled “Romneycare in MA” Romney says to Obama, “Your kid is ugly.”

I know historians are supposed to reject counterfactuals, but let’s play counterfactual history. (Hey, some of us don’t play fantasy football!)

Let’s say that Romney won the nomination in 2008 and beat Obama. At the time, a lot of people on both sides of the aisle realized that the healthcare system was broken (how soon the Republicans have forgotten). Romney would have probably pushed something very similar to Obamacare.

Remember, Obamacare was based on Romneycare in Massachusetts, and proposals based on the Heritage Foundation’s proposals. So it would have looked very similar. Obama chose to back that proposal not because he thought it was ideal, but because he’s the kind of person who defines politics as the art of the possible.

The line that both progressives who favored single payer and conservatives who hated Obamacare were told was that it was an incremental step towards socialized medicine. But nobody would have said that if it had come from Whitebread McMoneybags. Nobody is mistaking Mittens for Che Guevara.

At this point, the same problems that have come about from Obamacare would be presenting themselves about Romneycare National Edition. Only the Republicans would be scrambling to keep the gains they made, not the Democrats.

And after eight years of Mitt Romney, which would have been kind of dark for a lot of people but nothing like the Looming Garbage Fire On the Horizon we have now, we’d have a Democrat in the White House. Almost any Democrat. Trump wouldn’t have ascended without Obama to raise hell against. The Democrats would likely hold the Senate, and the Tea Party takeover of the narrowly-controlled House would not have happened. When Scalia passed away, Mitt would have been in a similar boat to the one Obama was in, and he would have been replaced by a Republican Merrick Garland, a middle of the road conservative that would, if anything, push the SCOTUS more to the center. Liberal judges retiring in the next eight years could breathe easy.

President Literally Any Democrat would have a strong mandate, and would currently be working with the Senate Majority Leader and the House Minority Whip to get the votes necessary to implement a single payer plan. Because the mandate was there and if s/he shapes it right, the votes would be there. Because there *would be* some issues with Romneycare National Edition, just like there *are* some issues with Obamacare. We’d just be, as a nation, much better posed to address them in the appropriate and sensible manner–ie, by getting rid of the inherent waste of the for-profit, insurance based model.

Instead of fighting tooth and nail to defend the Republicans’ scraps from the pivoted, irrational right Republican Party, we’d be in a good place to have a reasoned debate about the merits of a single payer system.

This counterfactual has been bothering me all day. Not because I wish Romney had won… I’ve never voted for the man, and a lot of progress that has been made under Obama wouldn’t have been made under Romney. But because it makes me feel like so much of politics comes down to the messenger. We would be poised, on this one very important issue, an issue important to all Americans–but especially to the most vulnerable among us– for a very different discussion right now… And one that is much better for those most vulnerable, if Obamacare had been brought to us simply by a different messenger. A messenger with different political and racial baggage.

I want to think that politics is bigger than the identity of the messenger. I really do. But I’m not sure.

#LunarAttraction Playlist

Picture of Lunar Lander and AstronautMy wife and I recently visited the Peabody Essex Museum‘s Lunar Attraction exhibit. One of the more unique features of the exhibit was that they put together a playlist and installed a listening station in the exhibit, where people could listen to various moon-related songs.

Both Greta and are pretty voracious music nerds. We still have a CD player in our car, and we make mix CDs whenever we’re going on a longer drive. I personally like to make themed mixes, especially– I’ve made mixes of train songs, a mix of songs with synonyms for “stupid” in the title, a mix of songs with numbers in the title, in numeric order… So when we encountered the Lunar Attraction playlist, we both wanted to share our own takes on the theme. Greta’s playlist can be found here. Now here’s mine:


It’s Only A Paper Moon — Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards

I’ve always loved this song– so much so that I purchased a copy of the failed play that it comes from, “The Great Magoo.”  This particular version is by Cliff Edwards, who is perhaps best remembered today as the voice of Jiminy Cricket… Though he was one of the top stars of his day, and should also be remembered for being the first person to record “Singin’ in the Rain,” back in 1929.

Mr. Moonlight — The Beatles

I’m not the biggest fan of the Beatles– something I chalk up to too much exposure to them in my formative years. But I like the Latin percussion and harmonies of this track off Beatles for Sale. It was apparently originally recorded by Piano Red, a blues pianist, under the name “Doctor Feelgood and the Interns.” Which is a pretty amazing name for a band…

Dancing in the Moonlight (It’s Caught Me In Its Spotlight)– Thin Lizzy

This 1977 track from Thin Lizzy seems to me to fall pretty squarely into the genre of vaguely retro ’70s rock songs that harken back to the teenie bopper pop themes of the early 1960s, while still sounding like the ’70s. (See “Crocodile Rock,” et al.)

Moonlight —  Maria Muldaur

Muldaur is remembered primarily for her somewhat schlocky but undeniably still amazing “Midnight at the Oasis,” a song that I have long loved, but don’t always admit that love in public. This track is a jazzy take on a Bob Dylan song from her 2006 album, Heart of Mine: Maria Muldaur Sings Love Songs Of Bob Dylan.

Mr. Moon — Clover

I’ve been slowly, over the last few years, warming up to 1960s California country rock. That said, I still do now and will always hate The Eagles. Don’t play the Eagles in my presence. That said, this song just makes me happy and relaxed. Weirdly, Clover’s closest brush with fame was their uncredited recording as the backing band on Elvis Costello’s debut album, My Aim is True. So yeah, next time you’re tapping your toe to a new wave classic like “Alison” or “Less Than Zero,” think about the fact that the band you’re listening to spent most of their time together sounding a lot more like The Band. Genre is always a convenient lie.

Moon River —  Patty Griffin

Patty Griffin covers what is possibly Henry Mancini’s best-loved song. I picked this version from the many because it’s haunting, quiet, and evocative. But it was a hard choice– this song is one of those standards that almost everyone seems to knock out of the park. On a side note, I went to see Henry Mancini lead his band back in elementary school. I guess it was my first concert. I’ve loved him ever since.

Dancing in the Moonlight — King Harvest

That Wurlitzer organ line. Every time. Just makes me happy. This song was a staple of oldies radio when I was a kid– and I listened to a LOT of oldies radio as a kid. When I was playing this mix for Greta, she remarked that she had always thought this song was by Van Morrison. Turns out she wasn’t alone. Per the Wikipedia page for “Dancing in the Moonlight”:

The song is often wrongly primarily attributed to Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, or “Kink Harris”, due to incorrect labeling on various digital download services. Neither Morrison nor Costello has recorded a version of “Dancing in the Moonlight”, and “Kink Harris” does not exist.

Man on the Moon — R.E.M.

R.E.M. is a band that I can take or leave. But this song is about Andy Kaufman, and I love Andy Kaufman. I actually came about this close to writing my senior thesis in college about Andy Kaufman, before I made it more generally about humor theory. I have a picture of Andy Kaufman in my office. For that matter, I have the WWE action figure two-pack of Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler in my office, too.

Anyway, I always liked how this song brought the idea of Kaufman faking his death together with the conspiracy theories about a faked moon landing… And this is a moon mix, so there you are. Any excuse to spread the Gospel of Andy.

There Was a Moon — Jacob Borshard

Jacob Borshard is a cartoonist and musician out of Austin, Texas. He plays the ukulele and sings songs about romantic regret, artists, dinosaurs, and Batman. If this sounds a bit too twee for your tastes, it probably is, but I love his songs. He’s self-released several albums, all of which can be downloaded for free here. Check him out!

Leave Me On The Moon — Beck

Beck included an earlier version of this song on Fresh Meat and Old Slabs, a mix tape that he made for his mother Bibbe Hansen, as a birthday gift. She went on to copy the tape for fans of her son.

This later version is from the soundtrack to the film Kill The Moonlight, a student film homage to ’70s grindhouse cinema by Steve Hanft, which Hanft completed in 1992. The soundtrack was released by Sympathy for the Record Industry in 1997.

Meanwhile, “Kill the Moonlight” is actually sampled on Beck’s 1994 breakthrough hit, “Loser.”

Bad Moon Rising — Creedence Clearwater Revival

Another standby of Oldies stations when I was growing up. Another song that I could, if I chose, made a Big Lebowski reference about. Just a cheery, uptempo song about the coming Apocalypse.

Blue Moon Take #2 — Bob Dylan

It’s 1969. You’re Bob Dylan, and you’re getting kind of tired of the whole “voice of a generation” thing being foisted on you, and the responsibility that comes with that. You just wanna play some music, man. So what do you do? You start recording Self Portrait, your follow-up to the classic Nashville Skyline, and your second double album. (Your first was Blonde on Blonde.) As you record, this cover-laden album becomes a monument to weirdness, to the point that Griel Marcus opened his Rolling Stone review of the album with the sentence “What is this shit?”

It’s a difficult album to listen to, to be sure, but I always find little diamonds in the rough whenever I listen to it. This somewhat messier alternate take on his cover of “Blue Moon” is one example. In all that sloppy, silly, weirdness… there’s just something there. Something better than the sum of the song’s parts.

Moon Rise — The Royals

The Royals (previously the Four Falcons, eventually to become The Midnighters) were a Doo Wop and R&B vocal group out of Detroit. They recorded this song on May 10, 1952, in Cincinnati, Ohio. The song became a regional hit in Philadelphia– the kind of success that got one onto the Hot 100’s “Bubbling Under” charts. I included it here because it’s just so beautiful and etherial. It sounds like a moonrise.

Mountains in the Moonlight — Johnnie Ray

The moon was at one point thought to have powers over the mind. That’s why the root of the word “lunatic” is “luna,” Latin for moon. What I love about this track is how the singer sounds right on the verge of coming unhinged.

Johnnie Ray, the singer on this track, was known for having a voice jam packed with emotion. He was known by nicknames including “the Nabob of Sob,” “Mr. Emotion,” and “The Prince of Wails.” His vocal special was a certain brand of melodramatic emotional delicacy that, for a while in the early 1950s, the teenaged crowd ate up. “Mountains in the Moonlight” is one of his less successful songs from that early period, but it is still a great example of his style.

Moon Watching —  Shin Joong Hyun

This is the only instrumental in this playlist. I included it because I can’t get enough of Shin Joong Hyun’s music. While his career goes back to 1958, when this track was recorded in South Korea, I– like most Western listeners– only recently became familiar with his work when Light in the Attic records released Beautiful Rivers And Mountains: The Psychedelic Rock Sound Of South Korea’s Shin Joong Hyun 1958-74. This surf-infused early track is great, but the album’s highlights are really the deeply psychedelic (and sometimes New Age-tinged) tracks from later in his career.  The man deserves to be better recognized in the States: he’s a great guitarist, and you’ll never mistake his music for anyone else’s you’ve ever heard.

New Moon — Sambassadeur

This is the first track on Swedish Indie-Pop band Sambassadeur’s eponymous first album. According to Labrador Records, their label, “Sambassadeur started as a DIY version of ABBA in the year 2003.”

Look, I’ll admit– I know next to nothing about Sambassadeur. I got this track on a mix CD from a friend back in 2006-2007. I liked it. I now have a handful of Sambassadeur songs on my iTunes, but I’ve never really sought out their music. But every time I hear a song from this band, I like it.

Sent to the Moon — Tullycraft

Seattle-based twee-pop band Tullycraft has been together since 1995, and to my constant amazement and consternation, they still seem to be relatively obscure. Maybe because their songs are full of obscure name dropping– of which “Sent to the Moon” is a great example. Another Tullycraft song that name-drops right and left is also a great description of the kind of songs Tullycraft plays: “Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend’s Too Stupid To Know About.”

This track is from their 2002 album Beat Surf Fun, which is precisely as sunny and fun as it sounds.

Hippy, Skippy, Moon Strut — The Moon People

This boogaloo obscurity might sound familiar. That’s probably because you’re thinking of Christina Aguilera’s 2006 “Ain’t No Other Man,” which was built off samples from this song. “Hippy, Skippy, Moon Strut,” in turn, was an edit of “Happy Soul (With A Hook)” by Dave Cortez with The Moon People, which in turn was a remix of “The Happy Man” by Los Astronautas, which was a vocal-less mix of “(I’ll Be A) Happy Man” by The Latin Blues Band.

At least I think that’s the case– it’s all hard to sort out. Spectro-Pop Express has a good explanation of the convoluted history of this track here.

Whatever you wanna call it, in any of it’s versions, it’s a funky, fun song.

Skinhead Moonstomp — Symarip

Syramip was a British ska and reggae band made up of the children of East Indian immigrants. They became one of the first bands to notice the growing population of skinheads in their audience, and to write songs that targeted and catered to them. This was in the late sixties, when “skinhead” was a working-class, multiethnic variant on mod fashion, before the term (and the subculture) became almost synonymous with racism.

“Skinhead Moonstomp” was first released in 1969, and was later re-released as a single in 1980, as a response to the 2-Tone ska craze. It’s a great dance anthem, as long as people look past the associations that people have come to have with the term “skinhead” since it was recorded.

Mr. Moon — Kate Micucci 

Do you happen to remember when, on season 9 of the show Scrubs, the accountant Ted met and fell in love with a sweet, gawky ukulele player named Stephanie Gooch? Or do you happen to be a fan of novelty music duo Garfunkel and Oates? If so, you probably are already familiar with Kate Micucci.

If not, Google her name, and you’ll probably say “oh, wasn’t she on that one episode of that one thing?” and be scrambling off to IMDB. In any case, her solo stuff is pretty sweet too.

This is a totally different “Mr. Moon” than the above one. This song follows the casual adventures of the Moon one day when he played hookie from, you know, being the moon, and instead went for a swim on Earth.

Blue Moon of Kentucky — Bill Monroe

Bill Monroe’s signature song, Elvis Presley’s first single, the official bluegrass song of the Bluegrass State.

There’s really no reason I should need to introduce this song. And the video below of Bill Monroe singing it has him introducing it anyway, and I’d trust him to speak to the song over me any day.

Moonlight in Vermont — Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong

I have to admit, I was torn between this version of the jazz standard and Willie Nelson’s version off of Stardust. To me, Willie’s will always be the definitive version, but this beats it out (just barely) for sheer beauty.

Things I learned about “Moonlight in Vermont” in writing up this description: 1) The song has no rhyme scheme. I’m not sure how I never noticed that before. 2) Except for the bridge, each verse of “Moonlight in Vermont” is a haiku.

 

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