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“…The stories we craft, and the stories visitors to exhibitions both bring to, and craft from, their encounters, can expand empathy and create transformative experiences, provide new insight and catalyze action.” Marla Miller, Professor, UMass History

The New England Museum Association (NEMA) held its annual conference in Portland, ME, on November 4th-6th. This year’s theme was “the language of museums,” and many sessions explored the importance of communication. Students, faculty, and alumni from the UMass Amherst Public History program attended the conference, and several of us maintained an active presence in the conference’s Twitter conversation, #NEMA2015 (click the link to see our tweets on Storify).

UMass Amherst Public History faculty, alumni, and students at NEMA 2015.

UMass Amherst Public History faculty, alumni, and students at NEMA 2015.

Many sessions that we attended focused on making museums inclusive spaces that combat systems of oppression, but there were also sessions on visitor engagement and photographing museum collections. Other members of the UMass Amherst Public History cohort attended sessions on objects and emotion, creating empathetic experiences, legislative advocacy, statewide collaborations, having difficult conversations in museum workplaces, and graphic design.

Here are some reflections from faculty and students on #NEMA2015:

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By Dr. Jane Rausch, Professor Emerita, Department of History

Rausch1

In 2017 the Holyoke Civic Symphony will celebrate its 50th anniversary. As a non-profit organization composed of 60 mostly non professional musicians who come together once a week to rehearse, it has survived, thanks to generous support from Holyoke Community College (HCC) and local businesses. The organization has also thrived because of the efforts of highly motivated instrumentalists and Boards of Directors. These individuals were determined to provide opportunities for people in Holyoke and the surrounding communities both to play and to hear high quality performances of symphonic works of music.

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By Emily T.H. Redman, Assistant Professor, Department of History

This past weekend I had the pleasure of seeing a year-long project come to fruition: the Science for the People (SftP) conference here at UMass Amherst. The conference, aimed to bring together participants from the 1970s radical activism group — alongside academic historians, scientists, and young scholars — explored the early origins of SftP and its lasting legacy, with a healthy dose of looking toward future reform, advocacy, and activism. I was, by the start of the conference, quite eager to see how it would unfold, which speakers would make an impression, and the overall zeitgeist of the event.

As a historian of science, I am interested in the ways in which science interacts with the larger culture. Science, of course, is inextricably part of that culture, but one that shares an interesting position — many find it inaccessible, imagine it to exist within impenetrable ivory towers (or worse, lock-and-keyed federal laboratories), and be driven by moneyed or powered interests that remain concealed. Science represents a stark duality of both fear and promise. Just as we look toward science and technology to solve our problems — ranging from cancer cures to prosthetic limbs to cleaning our oceans to just about everything — we also have a long history of deeply mistrusting science. At best, science is the pinnacle of human achievement; at worst it’s our Frankenstein, set into motion by our collective hubris, sure to rear its monstrous head and wreak havoc on any comfortable intimacy we might have had with scientific inquiry and practice.

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By Manisha Sinha, Professor of Afro-American Studies, Adjunct Professor of History

Recently Manisha Sinha wrote an article for the New York Daily News on the Hollywood film version of Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave. Due to the continued popularity of the film after its Oscar night success, Sinha’s argument seems all the more poignant. Read her take on the story, the film, and their lessons.

Relevant Links:

12 Years a Slave

David Ruggles Center

The Counterrevolution of Slavery, by Manisha Sinha

This is the second in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Black History Month. How do Americans perceive blacks of the international community? Does U.S. popular culture reveal deep-seated prejudice against countries like Haiti? What does this mean for those of African and Afro-Caribbean descent living in the U.S.?

Julio Capó, Jr., Assistant Professor, Department of History and Commonwealth Honors College

We went to the movies the other night, where I let my partner choose the film. After all, the real entertainment for me would be eating a whole tub of popcorn in the comforting and seemingly non-judgmental darkness of the theater. Buttery kernel goodness in hand, we sat down to watch Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. The movie, starring Will Ferrell, is a comedic sequel about the life and times of an incompetent — but often well-intentioned — news anchor ignorant to the real news happening around him and throughout the world. A mildly enjoyable film, one scene in particular left me feeling icky. At one point, protagonist Ron Burgundy tells his son that the only thing he has to fear in life is Haitian vodou. “That…will mess you up,” he warned. To avoid danger, steer clear from Haiti.

Fast forward a week or so to when I saw the season finale of the highly popular cable show, American Horror Story: Coven. The plot features a coven of witches struggling to both survive and assimilate in modern-day New Orleans. Most of the coven seemed to trace its ancestry to the witch trials of 17th-century Salem. A subplot, however, introduced viewers to the world of black Creole vodou. Actress Angela Bassett, who hasn’t seemed to age at all since she got her groove back as Stella in the 1990s, plays the notorious historical figure Marie Laveau. Today, Laveau’s story is more myth than reality. Her 1881 obituary, for example, called her the “Queen of the Voudou” and she immediately became the stuff of legend. On the show, Bassett’s character struck a deal with the devil, so to speak, to make her immortal. Except it wasn’t the devil. It was a frightening manifestation of the vodou crossroads spirit, Papa Legba. In exchange for the “gift” of immortality, Legba requires that Laveau make a human sacrifice: an “innocent,” most often found in the uncorrupted souls of children.

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Just in time for the opening events, Altstadt explores the darker side of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

By Audrey L. Altstadt, Department of History

“Outside the stadium on Super Bowl Sunday,” said a man in the audience, “there will be security police.” They won’t allow protests near the stadium. If you put up protest signs, they will rip them down. Protestors might get hauled away in police vans. And everyone will get searched to enter. So “I don’t see the difference,” he told me during a recent presentation about Russian human rights violations in connection with the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi.

If one takes a sufficiently narrow view of Super Bowl security and Olympic Game security, several similarities and demands stand out and could lead to the conclusion that “there’s no difference.” Both events entail crowd control in an era of world-wide terrorism. Both demand the facilitation of the needs of paying guests for seats, food, trinkets, and shouting room. Ensuring that the game or games take place is, of course, the top priority. But to suggest there is no difference between crowd control in New Jersey and human rights violations in Sochi is to ignore decades and centuries of the rule of law and divergent status of individual rights. Read More

By: John Higginson, Department of History

South Africa and the world have lost a great moral compass with the passing of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela last week. How many sitting politicians or corporate executives would voluntarily cut their annual salaries in half, for example? On can scarcely imagine a “negotiated settlement” ending South Africa’s last apartheid government or the first truly inclusive election in the country’s history in April 1994, without Mandela’s measured but steady tread toward the seat of power. Once F. W. De Klerk’s government was compelled to release Mandela from Viktor Verster Prison in February 1990 and to lift the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), the cruel political certainties apparently collapsed. However, even more dangerous ambiguities and uncertainties took their place.

Mandela’s “rainbow nation” was never a given, even though the ANC’s leadership, with Mandela guiding from the rear, avoided a bloody civil war and won an election. The Afrikanervolksfront, which was composed of former generals from the General Staff of the South African Defense Force (SADF) and the leadership of proto-fascist organizations such as the Afrikanerweerstand beweging (AWB), was fully capable and willing to prosecute a devastating civil war. Under the leadership of General Constand Viljoen and others far to the right of him, plans for a conflagration on this scale swung into high gear after the assassination of popular anti-apartheid leader Chris Hani in April 1993. Even after future president Mandela invited Viljoen to tea at his home and persuaded him that he should run for a seat in the prospective parliament, others went forward with a plan for a protracted military campaign. Read More