Sunday, March 8, 2009

Living History For Sale

(Note that the title of this post is not meant in any way to be critical.)

Today, I'm looking at the Queens County Farm Museum, which is located right in Queens, a thirty minute drive from the Empire State Building (on a good traffic day). March 3rd's New York Times had an article about this museum, but not in its Arts section. In its Style section, specifically Dining & Wine! This is because the museum, which has long been a destination for school field trips, has recently expanded its operations and begun selling its crops & manufactures at a NY farmer's market.

I think this is very cool. The museum has the authenticity thing down, as it explains on its website:
The Queens County Farm Museum's history dates back to 1697; it occupies New York City's largest remaining tract of undisturbed farmland and is the only working historical farm in the City. The farm encompasses a 47-acre parcel that is the longest continuously farmed site in New York State.
Yet, its farm manager has also had the vision to realize the value of tying the museum's mission into more contemporary social and economic trends like the homesteading
phenomenon, the Slow Food movement, and the trend towards eating local. And hopefully, since daily admission is free, sales of their farm products are helping to support the museum's mission a little.

Because what a mission it is:
The mission of the Queens County Farm Museum is to preserve, restore, and interpret the site. Through educational programs, events, and museum services, we educate the public as to the significance of Queens County's agricultural and horticultural past and heighten awareness of present-day agricultural and horticultural practices.
Tying the values and practices of the past in with the realities of the present. I love it.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Ways We Learn - Lincoln Edition

(Should have been posted February 19, 2009)

Recently, one of my favorite blogs, Curious Expeditions, posted about the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. This museum recently mounted an exhibit that contains various objects associated with Lincon's assassination. As they point out, "Between the reopening of Ford Theater, constant comparisons, and the 200th anniversary of his birth, the nation’s spotlight is fully fixated on the United States 16th President, one Abraham Lincoln."

I think what interested me most about this piece were the unusual Lincoln artifacts that are newly on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine:
the bullet that killed the president, casts of his face and hands, fragments of his skull jiggled loose during the autopsy, a lock of hair removed from the wound, the probe used to locate the bullet, and a shirt cuff stained with Lincoln’s blood.
This fascination with different types of artifacts associated with famous people is certainly not unique to the twentieth century. Many of these objects had to have been saved by the doctors who handled Lincoln both before and after his death.

So what did they give us? What do we gain from seeing a piece of the skull that housed that remarkable brain? Or the bullet which sat in John Wilkes Booth's gun for days before ending the life of our sixteenth president? They're certainly not the usual artifacts we might see in a museum exhibit - no dignified presidential papers or stately Mt. Vernon or Monticello furniture here.

Maybe that's good. To a 16-year old with an interest in the macabre or medicine, this type of artifact might have a much greater appeal than all the military metals and framed law degrees in the world. And who are we to discount that appeal? Curators and exhibit designers, obviously, but perhaps we should keep our minds open to the different ways that people learn. In that world, a Lincoln "death artifacts" exhibit at a museum of medicine makes perfect sense.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Weight of Public Opinion

Thanks to the setbacks of the last few weeks, I've gotten quite a bit behind on this journal - three weeks behind to be exact. In an effort to catch up, this is the first of three posts that will go up this weekend. At the top of each, I'll note when the post should have been published. Shoulda, coulda, woulda, right?

(Should have been posted February 12, 2009)

In 2003, J. Dennis Robinson published an article in Foster's Sunday Citizen and on his website, At the time, the museum was in between directors and Robinson saw it as a perfect time to re-think the museum's identity, which he believed was in crisis. Now, having only known Strawbery Banke for two years on Robinson's thirty, perhaps I'm not qualified to gauge the museum's current identity crisis, or lack thereof. However, it's my blog, so I'm going to have a stab at it anyway.

Robinson's main point in this article seemed to be that Portsmouth is not as easily associated with something, like Salem is with witches and Plymouth is with Pilgrims. Therefore, Strawbery Banke (and Portsmouth by extension) is a perfect location for what he calls an "Exploratorium." He envisions a museum where visitors can engage with the themes that the houses bring up, themes common to many, like widowhood, genealogy, and immigration.

I think Robinson has some good points (some of which seem to have been acted upon by museum staff in recent years). However, I feel that some of his ideas may be detrimental to the museum's sense of identity.

One of his main points compares
Strawbery Banke to other living history sites like Old Sturbridge Village, Plimouth Plantation, and Colonial Williamsburg. While nominally acknowledging that the museum's authenticity is a good thing, he still seems to believe that these latter sites provide a much more powerful experience for their visitors. I'm sure visitation numbers would support him on this, as well.

However, I'm going to have to disagree. While the "constructed villages" are very well-researched and well-executed, I think an authentic site is equally as, if not much more, compelling. You can stand at the corner of Atkinson and Jefferson streets on the grounds of SBM and be in the middle of a neighborhood that existed - in lively, busy, bustling form - in 1640, 1740, 1840, and 1940. Perhaps the interpretative plan needs revision in order to reflect that to visitors more fully, but that, to me, is the museum's true strength and identity.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


Perhaps because I was sick recently, my computer has sympathetically come down with a virus. After much teeth-gnashing and stressful folder searching, I think I've tracked it down and deleted it. So I apologize for my recent silence.

I'm also off on a business trip to NYC early (as in 6am early) tomorrow, so I'll have to catch up on blog things at the end of the week.