By Mariam Williams
In September, several members of the Chronicling Resistance steering committee attended the Annual Meeting of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. There we heard a keynote address from Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and author of The Participatory Museum and The Art of Relevance.
Based on her second book, Simon’s keynote address (much like this TEDx Talk) gave leaders of various organizations and institutions a crash course in “how to invite people outside of their traditional circles, into that thing that matters to [them].” In other words, she answered the following question: how do you make a place, issue, cause, art form, business, etc. relevant to people who currently, for whatever reason, don’t care about it, don’t know it exists, or don’t think it’s of any importance to them?
Who are archives important to? With whom do narratives of resistance resonate? The answers aren’t necessarily two different constituencies, but one group may, to paraphrase Simon, look at the front door to an archival institution and see a systemic lockout while the other may look at the same door and feel like they are about to enter their own home.
I’m closer to the latter group. For most of my life, I’ve had the ability to nerd out and go down rabbit holes of documents and files just because it’s interesting. On the other hand, I also know what it’s like to enter a place built in the 1800s and have an archivist who’s certain I don’t know protocols about food, beverages, pens, and bags watch me closely as I do my work. Such an archivist’s behavior (and such necessary rules) aren’t ones everyone can tolerate. But it doesn’t mean the stories inside the archives wouldn’t be important to them if they knew they were there. It may just mean, as Simon suggests, the effort it takes to get into those archives and draw meaning from them isn’t worth it to everyone. And it may mean we have to build a door that they think will be worth going through, a door that opens to something meaningful for them.
What does that door look like? What does the invisible “Welcome” mat outside look like? That’s the question I’m wrestling with. With a group of consultants we’re calling Thinking Partners, the Chronicling Resistance staff and steering committee is attempting to construct those doors and welcome mats for communities whose voices of resistance may not have been heard clearly enough by the people who have used the archives to write their stories, and for communities who are still trying to tell their stories in their own ways.
Simon encourages “community-first programming, using a community’s assets and resources to build a project together.” Listening to the community’s wisdom and then adapting existing doors and spaces rather than prescribing what they should look like–because honestly, we don’t know what they should look like. We, the historians, archivists, and academics who are degreed and skilled in what we do are not the experts in this project.
For the next several months, Chronicling Resistance staff, steering committee members, and consultants will be attempting to construct new doors and welcome mats for communities whose voices of resistance may not have been heard clearly enough by the people who have used the archives to write their stories, and for communities who are still trying to tell their stories in their own ways. I’m excited to look to people whose histories, stories, and contributions often have been undervalued and call them experts.