Eastern State Penitentiary

Our visit on Thursday left me with questions.

What is Eastern State Penitentiary?

Is it a museum?

Is it a historic site?

Is it a educational experience or an entertainment enclave?

It’s hard to answer these questions as Eastern State seems to fit them all. Sean Kelley, our guide and Director of Interpretation and Public Programming at ESP, gave us an enlightening peak at what Eastern State is today, and that answer is: all of the above.

To answer if Eastern State is a museum, let’s return to Peale and his museum. His concern, all these years ago, was  “what to collect, how to display it, and how to teach.” Eastern State collects experiences. Experiences of inmates, jailers, and Philadelphians. They display their collection in a historic site, the penitentiary. Inside these walls, Eastern State attempts to teach visitors about the history of criminal justice and the current state of criminal justice in the United States. 

In a past blog post on my blog, I discussed the nuances between history and memory. As academics, we get caught up in defining things. Everything must be defined and fit into categories; however, life isn’t like that. Eastern State’s own mission statement runs the gambit and covers such a wide spectrum of public history fields. It states:

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. works to preserve and restore the architecture of Eastern State Penitentiary; to make the Penitentiary accessible to the public; to explain and interpret its complex history; to place current issues of corrections and justice in an historical framework; and to provide a public forum where these issues are discussed. While the interpretive program advocates no specific position on the state of the American justice system, the program is built on the belief that the problems facing Eastern State Penitentiary’s architects have not yet been solved, and that the issues these early prison reformers addressed remain of central importance to our nation.

This mission statement has not be updated since 1999, according the site’s personal website. It intrigues me. Has the site’s mission changed at all in the 18 years that have passed since this mission statement was decided upon. Kelley’s talk certainly made it seem like the site is still working on meeting its mission statement. The site’s fear to tackle race related issues shows that there is still room for evolution. Their latest exhibit, Prisons Today, only opened in May 2016 and The Big Graph was installed in 2014. With these dates in mind, I dug into the past exhibits of the site and found a lack of information available (a quick search on Google pulls up pages which reference past exhibits and timelines, but the links are dead). I can’t help but ponder the existence of time between the stated mission statement and the lack of information available. Amy Tyson discussed the grappling boards must do to meet the demands of their visitors while juggling with the intimidating past their sites have. Eastern State seems to struggle with the same problem. The Graph and the new exhibit are fascinating steps in the right direction, but what happened in the years between? I’d love to find out more about this. 

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The Participatory Trump Museum

Is there such a thing of a museum who isn’t participatory these days? Well, if we use Levi Fox’s Trump museum as an example, then no, there isn’t!

Let us first breakdown Nina Simon’s idea of the participatory museum. She writes that the goal of participatory techniques used by museums “is both to meet visitor’s expectations for active engagement and to do so in a way that furthers the mission and core values of the institution.” Mr. Fox’s engagement with the community meets this two-fold. First, his website offers community members an opportunity to tell their “Trump Story” (whatever that story may be). Second, he accepts artifacts pertaining to the various business’s Trump ran in Atlantic City. Fox’s museum’s mission is: “The Project Is A Bi-Partisan Look At The Legacy Of The Trump Plaza, Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Castle, Trump Marina, and Trump World’s Fair.” By collecting the stories and artifacts, the Trump Museum participates in the participatory field of museum work.

Simon also states, “Rather than delivering the same content to everyone, a participatory institution collects and shares diverse, personalized, and changing content coproduced with visitors.” Here the Trump Museum has room to expand. Perhaps, an online collection which visitors who have contributions can post their artifacts or stories relating to Atlantic City Trump endeavors. This could tie into Simon’s final statement on participation: “It invites visitors to respond and add information about cultural artifacts, scientific evidence, and historical records on display.”

The biggest issue that will arise from the Trump Museum’s interactions with the community is that it is a highly politicized individual to be associating with. Fox made a comment on how “names mean something,” and here, it could not be anymore true. The name “The Atlantic City Trump Museum” conjures certain images to mind. The viewer immediately knows that this is a highly localized thing. The museum also states it has to do with Trump, but does not belie any more information. This particular museum will need to hone its name down to a precise reflection to be successful.

Simon states that participatory techniques can eliminate the issue of: “the authoritative voice of the institution doesn’t include my view or give me context for understanding what’s presented.” Here, the museum will gave the most work cut out for it. Fox discussed the use of media sources to get the news out there about the museum. He also discussed how the comment sections of these media sources where incredibly intriguing.

In this day and age, anonymity allows anyone to post anything without much regret. One commenter on an article discussing the museum wrote: “Include a large hall with lifelike statues of everyone he’s stiffed over the years, and the women he’s groped.” Another said, “But if Atlantic City investors want to build one depicting his life up until now, there is nothing with putting that sort of information out there as long as it is done in a nonpartisan manner. Educating the people about Trump’s life is more important for fixing our society than scoring some immediate political points.” Most public responses seem to be, however, aggressively anti-Trump. Posts on Facebook in response to the articles discussing the museum as incredibly against the idea of a museum honoring the current President of the United States.

It’s hard to say how to go ahead with the museum. The participatory model could help those who felt victimized by Trump casino ventures to be heard, but it could also help those who had pleasant experiences at the casinos be heard. For now, it seems the best method would be to stress the museum’s bipartisan nature to usher a feeling of inclusiveness.

 

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Creative Memory: Personal History at Tyler School of Art

 

Memory is a fickle thing. At the beginning of the semester, we established two points. One: history challenges the past. Two: memory reaffirms the past.  At Tyler School of Art, I saw a mix of the two which, I think, lends itself to Michael Frisch’s ideas of shared authority. Frisch defines shared authority as “something that ‘is’–that in the nature of oral and public history, we are not the sole interpreters. Rather, the interpretative and meaning-making process is in fact shared by definition–it is inherent in the dialogic nature of an interview, and in how audiences receive and respond to exhibitions and public history interchanges in general” (127). Art installations at Tyler have a dialogue and it’s intense.

The two exhibits shown here allow for a dialogue to be had between viewer and artist. They play on the idea of memory. Reaffirming the past for myself and transporting me back to nostalgic childhood. However, these pieces also challenge history. The overtly feminized bicycle and accessories speak to gender roles of the past. The piece is so in-your-face about the perceived traditional ‘girly’ toys that it is hard to not question it, or think, “I wanted a pink bike with streamers,
or perhaps, “I would’ve hated this bike as a kid.” This piece is making a claim on feminism, on gender roles, and on history.

Kathleen McLean discusses the power of art in her article Whose Questions, Whose Conversations?” In the article she discusses the success of the “conversational nature” (74) of an art exhibit curator by local teens. The same conversational nature is seen at Tyler right now. A simple shelf of Beanie Babies seems innocuous enough, but look closer and one can see commentary on past materialism or dying of a former superstar. Maybe, the idea of consumerism comes to mind. Perhaps, the 1950s boom in buying or 1990s ‘yuppie’ culture. Or, maybe like me, it conjures ideas of childhood, of your own personal history. The viewer applies their version of the past to the piece and passes it on to those around them. For me, the beanie babies evoked memories of time spent with family, but the historian of me questioned the decay of a former idol. A new version of the past is forged through dialogue about the memory evoking pieces which challenge the existing narratives. By allowing a conversation to happen between artist and viewer, Tyler is inadvertently ‘doing’ public history.

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