By Sarah Litvin
This semester, as my colleagues test out new classroom techniques and assignments, I will be doing similar work in an historic bakery building and retail shop at 99-101 Broadway in Kingston, New York. I spent much of the summer in Kingston, researching this site’s story and starting to experiment with different stories and storytelling methods. Here on Visible Pedagogy, I’ll be reflecting on the ways I bring viewers into the process of interpreting the site’s history, and how my work for the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History aligns with instructional practices that can be applied more broadly. This week, I want to share some thoughts about how researching and creating a museum tour is a lot like writing a course syllabus. But first, a bit of context.
The Building and the Project
For the last thirteen years, the 140 year-old building at 99-101 Broadway has been maintained by of the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History, a project of the Jewish Federation of Ulster County. I encourage you to check out their website to learn more about the project’s fascinating history. Long story short, however, since 2004, the Reher Center Committee has raised over a half-million dollars to stabilize this building and launched an array of programs, including an annual multicultural festival that drew 800 people this June from across the Hudson Valley. The Center’s mission is to provide an institution that works to document, embrace, and promote regional cultural history and diversity.
In 2016, the committee agreed that it was time to start thinking seriously about how to convert the space into a Museum. They invited Ward Mintz, a seasoned museum professional, to join the committee. He recommended that they invite proposals for an interpretive plan for the historic building. (An interpretive plan is the roadmap a cultural institution uses to design their site and program in order to suit the various needs and realities of mission, resources, and visitors.) My former boss from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Annie Polland, recommended me for this exciting but overwhelming project. Last winter, I sat down to draft my proposal.
Defining a Narrative?
No tour can possibly touch on every issue, just as no college course can cover a given topic from every possible angle. So trying to figure out what story a tour of our site would tell seemed like an essential first step. As I thought more about this, however, I realized that this question was not quite right. “What topics do we want to talk about in the building?” suggests that I, the curator, am offering a set of interpretations that I’ve developed based on the history of the building. Instead, I wanted to develop a tour that would invite visitors into the process of making meaning about what happened here. To do this, I would have to dig much more deeply into the possible stories that the site might tell, and come up with a range of intriguing documents and artifacts that I could present to visitors in order to ask them to interpret this history–and its relevance to their lives–themselves.
Digging into the Archives
So, in order to create a visitor-centered site-specific tour, we first had to first focus our attention away from the space and the visitors. This summer, we embarked upon a three-pronged approach to researching the history of the building: mining archival sources, studying and preserving artifacts that the Reher family left behind, and collecting oral histories with people who had worked or shopped there.
As we sorted through greeting cards, tax returns, newspaper clippings, hand-written recipes and more, I began to organize our various findings into themes. I created a document entitled “Contemporary Issues,” and under each one, I included which aspects of the family’s story might function as a jumping-off point to these big ideas. These include: woman-owned property and business, urban renewal and change, immigrant communities and policing, building diverse communities, immigrant foodways, undocumented Immigration, and balancing personal dreams, family obligations, and family business.
Stay tuned for the next installment, where I share our first experiment with using some of the objects and documents we discovered this summer to tell visitors a story about 99-101 Broadway.
Sarah Litvin is a doctoral candidate in History and a writing fellow at the TLC.