Current Projects and Research

A Cultural Arsenal for Democracy: The War Work of U.S. Museums, 1939-1946

In 1941 a Central Press wire story declared, “The latest and strangest recruit in Uncle Sam’s defense line-up is—the museum!” The release quoted the Museum of Modern Art’s president as saying, “Does it seem strange to you to think of a museum as a weapon in national defense?” Far from finding it strange, U.S. museums contributed to the Second World War in numerous ways.

Addressing this little studied aspect of museum history, this book-length project, based on my dissertation, foregrounds how exhibitions materialized different configurations of belonging, from the Good Neighborhood of hemispheric unity, to Home Front as solidarity, to One World at peace. Trends from the late 1930s—a reinvigorated sense of the museum as a social instrument, a new emphasis on narrative installations, borrowings from mass communications, and the conceptualization of material rhetoric as capable of producing intellectual, emotional, and embodied forms of knowing—inspired a flourishing of purposive, educational displays on current issues. These multisensory, affective encounters constituted generative acts of witnessing that affirmed institutional as well as individual civic belonging to national and international imaginaries.

These wartime activities did not resolve the 1930’s debates about the merits and drawbacks for museal practice of efforts to popularize museums. War conditions did, however, encourage wider spread experimentation than might otherwise have been the case. So, while the poles of opposition appeared to remain fixed, by 1946 the terrain in between had shifted with the advance of museum educators into the professional ranks; the continued incorporation of mass media techniques and technologies into exhibitions; and the desire on the part of many museum workers to demonstrate their institutions’ civic value by engaging in current affairs of importance to local, national, and even global communities.

The concluding chapter offers some observations about why this account of museums’ wartime work matters not only to historians but to contemporary practice as well. Intentionally and otherwise, American museums continue to offer representations of the national imaginary as well as configure various forms of belonging—for themselves as institutional citizens within their local and extended communities and for their patrons who come to inhabit, if only for the duration of their onsite or online visit, the museal space. At a time when the sensory body and its emotive capacities have again become important to scholars, exhibition designers, and others working in museums and allied services, understanding our history can prompt lines of inquiry and reflection essential to being knowing, critical creators.

Grant-funded Research

Find Your Voice, Hartford (2014 IMLS National Leadership Grant for Libraries Award)
Project Manager/Editor

The Digital Media Center at the University of Connecticut in partnership with the Hartford Public Library is developing Find Your Voice, a nationally replicable model for the integration of libraries’ cultural heritage collections with their civic engagement programs. At the core of this effort will be an interpretive, mobile-optimized website using the open-source software, Omeka. A primary objective for the Find Your Voice proof-of-concept prototype is to develop a viable solution to a recognized challenge facing public libraries: establishing meaningful connections between traditional collections and newer community service programs developed in recent years. For example, forward-looking institutions, the Hartford Public Library among them, now offer programs to stimulate democratic public discourse, build bridges between diverse community groups, and provide training in 21st-century literacy skills. Often, however, these activities have little or no connection to the libraries’ cultural heritage collections. The Find Your Voice project will address this gap by strategically joining the extensive archival materials of the Hartford Public Library’s Hartford History Center with the civic literacy goals of the Library’s own nationally-recognized We Belong Here program.

The Find Your Voice project will develop interactive media to engage a diverse public in exploring historic individuals who found their civic voices through poetry, performance, and other expressive forms. In addition to situating present-day community members within a centuries-long local tradition of inquiry, reflection, literacy, and civic involvement, Find Your Voice will empower site visitors to discover how they, too, can help build a more equitable, vibrant, and democratic society at the community level. This will be achieved through two means: multimedia tutorials that connect past forms of civic engagement to contemporary concerns and strategies; and profiles of accessible contemporary “voices” who, like their historic counterparts, illustrate the essential connection between cultural literacy and engaged citizenship. These contemporary voices will be selected in collaboration with participants in the We Belong Here program and community stakeholder organizations. The two core public audiences to be served by Find Your Voice are first- and second-generation immigrants and the Millennial generation.

Omeka Everywhere (2014 IMLS National Leadership Grant for Museums Award)
User Evaluation Lead

The Digital Media Center at the University of Connecticut, as a project partner with George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and Ideum, will manage user evaluation of Omeka Everywhere, a set of open-source software templates for connecting museums’ digital collections to in-gallery touchscreen experiences. The UConn-based contributions to this effort encompass the development and user evaluation of digital exhibitions in collaboration with the William Benton Museum of Art and The Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.

 

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  1. […] Brainstorm: My other THATCamp topic concerns my still-in-proposal-stage dissertation on the wartime work of U.S. museums.  It is my hope that integrating digital humanities into this […]


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