Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Estonian National History Museum

Where else do museum workers spend their honeymoons but going to museums? In August, on a delayed honeymoon, my husband and I visited Copenhagen, Berlin, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, and Stockholm. It was an extraordinary trip and we visited museums in every city - some good, some bad, some simply radically different from the museums I had grown used to in the United States and western Europe.

In all, we both fell totally and completely in love with Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Medieval at its core, the city had its heyday as a trading center of the Hanseatic League. The medieval center of the city was preserved in the way that many cities are stilled in time: by economic bust, by growth in other parts of the country, and by a fierce pride in heritage.

Overlaid on that medieval core were new skyscrapers on the edges of the city, and here and there, ghostly traces of the Soviet presence that had occupied Estonia for most of the 20th century.

In many ways, the story of Estonia is a story of conquest and yet strong nationalistic identity. The Estonian National History Museum reflects that, and its central thesis is a strong and carefully reinforced story of a central identity.

The museum itself was in an old guild hall building that dated to the 16th century. It had been beautifully restored, and the basement was devoted to interpreting the guild as well as Tallinn's role as a trade city.

Above is the entrance to the museum, which told the story of Estonian history through a clever artistic video that used different characters - historic and mythological - to tell different aspects of Estonia's history. Each offered commentary on the main story, told in the largest screen on the bottom right.

In a particularly effective bit of visual clarity in storytelling, the core video had two aids. On the top, a basic timeline, that advanced in red as the story went on. On the bottom, a population counter that mostly rose - but dropped dramatically at several points in the 20th century due to famines and displacement. Large numbers of Estonians fled the country as refugees during the Soviet era.

The central hall was sparse but stunningly beautiful. Scattered throughout the hall were these stations, as you can see above. Each one had a question in Estonian and in English, and the questions were constructed to serve two purposes. On one level, they were questions that many tourists would ask, as above - "Is Estonia known in the rest of the world?"

On another level, however, each question was a deeply probing reflection on national identity. I'll be frank: until we booked this cruise (which we did mostly on the strength of my husband's Swedish heritage) I knew very little about Estonia. I probably could not have picked it out on a map. When I listed the cities we were visiting to friends and family, I always had to explain where Tallinn was, and why it was included.

So a question about whether or not people have heard of the country is a very real one, even for this relatively well-educated and well-traveled American, but it's also deeply personal to the inhabitants of a small nation whose independence has been precarious throughout its history - and will most likely be precarious again.

Each question was answered with sweeping, thoughtful language that did include some basic facts and statistics but largely encouraged the reader to think not only on the simple straightforward answer (which to the above question was "well, sort of") but also the ramifications of that answer: how and why  have people heard of Estonia?

The questions were answered with interactives, with text, and with objects. "What is Estonia's national dress?" or "What language do Estonians speak?" were answered with inclusivity and sensitivity, while again stressing a common national identity.

Estonia is a relatively stable democracy with a strong ethnic nationalistic identity, at a time when all of those basic descriptors are shifting and don't mean what they used to. Some speculate that, like Crimea, it's an object of Russian interest, and it wouldn't take much for this country to disappear again. Visiting it - and experiencing this museum - felt like a gift.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Local History, Recent History, and Authenticity: What Patriots' Day Gets Wrong

One of my post-election actions was to purchase a subscription to the New York Times. I added the app to my phone, and since then have read a handful of articles every day. (I'm also loving the mini crossword puzzle as a quick jolt of puzzle-solving & success to start my day.)

An article I read on the day it came out last week has stuck with me and bounced around in my brain ever since.

'Patriots Day' Disconnect Between Bostonians and the Rest of Us

I wasn't in Boston on that fateful Patriot's Day. I had moved to Vermont a few months earlier. I did have the day off, and had the race on TV and was tracking several friends on my phone to see their finishing times. When news of the bombing broke, I wanted to be in Boston, the city of my childhood and my graduate years. I quickly found that I couldn't listen to or watch anything but local news. I downloaded the WBUR app for my phone and listened to it nonstop for breaking news. I wanted voices and faces I recognized and trusted.

I followed those voices through the manhunt in Watertown, and soon had my own unnerving connection to the tragedy: Sean Collier was from my hometown, a few years behind me in high school. I knew his sister better, but I still have a wisp of a memory of Sean as a freshman in the band room. Now he was dead, and though I had perhaps said a half-dozen words to him in my life, it was personal all over again.

I was lucky enough, in 2014, to see Rainey Tisdale's exhibition at the Boston Public Library, "Dear Boston." I had a few hours to spare while visiting Boston and seeing the exhibition was on the top of my list. It was a deeply emotional exhibit, and one of the rare exhibits that my "museum brain" fizzled out repeatedly while viewing. Each time I focused on construction, design, or theory, that thought stuttered to a stop, half-formed. I simply reacted.

I'm not sure someone who wasn't from Boston would have had that reaction. In a similar way, I doubt I would have that reaction at the 9/11 Memorial site. Though deeply affected by that tragedy, like all Americans (it was my first day of classes at college, and it seems like every minute of that week is engraved in my memory) New York is not my city. It wasn't a personal tragedy.

From the moment I saw the previews for the movie Patriots Day, I also felt like many of the people quoted in the New York Times article: uneasy, offended, even borderline repulsed. The author of the article chalks that up to a deep familiarity with the facts behind the narrative. She argues that many Bostonians have followed the story of the bombing so closely that they are jarred by the artistic licenses taken by the film.

I don't think that's right. I think there's something deeper. I think that Bostonians are reacting on an emotional level to the simple existence of the movie, in the same way that I felt in "Dear Boston." I think that there's an exposed nerve here, and it's mixed up in some deeply profound and personal touchstones.

First: local history. Why are people so passionate about things that happened on their block, in their town, their county, their state? Is it some kind of ingrown nativism, a pride of place? Is it simply more accessible? Or is there something deeper, and more primal - is there something deeply satisfying in looking at a moment in history and saying mine? Where are the intersections of this impulse and place? Is this part of that alchemy of place-based history that I am still not sure we really understand? Either way, Boston is already a place with territorial impulses, the Hub of the Universe, and the local history of the Marathon bombing is theirs, "Our Marathon," as the Northeastern University digital project titled it.

Second: recent history. This is a much more obvious call-out. There's a reason that films about recent history, especially recent tragedies, are decried as exploitation. Sometimes - oftentimes - they are. There's money to be made in hitting those raw emotions with a mallet, and human beings are drawn to the manipulation of those emotions like moths to a flame. Every movie made about a recently dead celebrity, terrible tragedy, or deeply emotional event that's still in the news will be decried by many as a cash grab. I think there are a few things at play here: on the most obvious level, people often reject obvious manipulation of their emotions. I think there's also a sense that a properly thoughtful treatment of events needs time to simmer. It needs time for us to think and process instead of simply reacting. But that could be the historian in me.

Third: authenticity. Can you ever really suspend disbelief to participate in a fictional narrative about something that you were so deeply embedded in? This is where the New York Times article gets closest to the truth. There definitely is a tendency to subject movies based on real events to a deeper scrutiny. Sometimes that's appropriate, sometimes not. Movies are not documentaries are not history books. They have a specific type of storytelling that strives for emotional impact over hard adherence to the facts. That's right and good; they are true to their medium. But it's a tough balance, and it's rare that a movie is made about something that is so personal to so many people.

I think that it's the confluence of these three strong wells that explains why Boston is upset about this movie. I also think it offers hope to us in museums and history for thinking about going forward. Where there is deep emotion, there is also strength, and there is potential. In this instance, it's negative, but we need to remember that going back to those wells can be reinvigorating for positive purposes as well.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

2017 Reading Goals

A friend did an interesting analysis on his 2016 reading, and I thought I'd do the same for mine.

In 2016, I read 79 books, tracked thanks to Goodreads.

Of those:

25 were written by white men
50 were written by women
10 were written by authors of color
16 featured a protagonist or major character of color
10 featured a protagonist or main character who was LGBTQ (or explicitly asexual)

I also read 1 graphic novel, and 1 libretto.

Genre breakdown:

48 fantasy
16 science fiction
6 fiction
4 non-fiction (3 history, 1 essay collection)
2 memoir

My favorite book of 2016 was probably N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season, a triumph of worldbuilding and writing and mind-bending brilliance in terms of characterization, point of view, and so many other things. It is also a genuinely diverse book in that it encompasses the obvious check boxes (author and protagonists of color, protagonists who are gay & poly) but also some profoundly differing points of view, all treated with respect.

My least favorite book of 2016 was Robin McKinley's Pegasus, which was a deep and unsettling surprise to me. It had nearly everything I could possibly want in a book and still fell painfully, depressingly flat. I read worse books, but none that I felt more sad about.

In 2017, I need to do way better in a couple of categories:
- less fantasy (which is my comfort reading)
- more authors of color
- more protagonists of color
- more protagonists/authors who are LGBTQ

And for this blog, perhaps most importantly, more non-fiction. More museum professional development!

I'll try to do a monthly roundup, and highlight any museum-specific books I've read.