[This post was originally on Storify; I’m archiving a slightly updated version here now that Storify is going away.]
Every two years I teach an upper-level seminar called Museums, Monuments, and Memory. In that course we explore basic theoretical approaches to public history, as well as building an entire exhibit from the ground up in the lobby of our Center for Fine Arts. I choose the topic, but the students take over from that point on and figure out the direction they want to take, the shape of the exhibit architecture, the color schemes they’ll use, and every other bit of research, construction, and design that will bring the exhibit into being.
In 2016, I added an immersive experience: five days in NYC to study public history in all its forms. (A donor made this trip possible – the students did not pay for anything.)
We started out bright and early on Wednesday, April 27, taking the train to Chicago, then a flight to New York, then a shuttle to our hotel. Thursday, the real fun began. We started the day with a visit to Brooklyn United, a cultural impact digital agency in Brooklyn. BU helps clients – including a wide range of educational institutions (Knox included) and museums – increase their cultural impact through the smart deployment of digital technology. CEO Brian Lemond, along with Devin Drumheller and Karen Veisblatt Toledano, talked with us about the ways they help museums function 24/7, and led a great discussion about the possibilities inherent in digital innovation.
After lunch (Shake Shack!) we walked back to Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge.
That evening came one of the highlights of the trip.
We were pretty excited.
We had great seats, thanks to support from the Donham Fund in History. Some of the students were able to sit on the second row.
The show blew us out of the water, and the walk home that night was peppered with spirited discussions about theater as a venue for public history, and the ways in which the show worked with, changed, and built upon Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton.
The excitement Hamilton generated spilled over into Friday morning’s main event – a tour of Revolutionary-era New York led by Karen Quinones of Patriot Tours. Karen was fabulous. She was funny, generous, and incredibly knowledgable about the Revolution – the Sons of Liberty, Washington’s spies, and the Boston fishermen who rescued the American troops during the Battle of New York came alive to all of us.
Our tour took in City Hall, St Peter’s Church, Wall Street, and Fraunces Tavern, to name just a handful of places. We also visited the graves of Alexander Hamilton, Eliza Hamilton, Angelica Church (if, indeed, she’s buried at that spot), and Hercules Mulligan. Out of respect, we left flowers at each grave site. (We were there the same day that filming was being done for the Hamildoc on PBS, and later saw that our roses made the cut in the final documentary.)
From there we took the subway to the New York Historical Society, where sadly two of the galleries we had hoped to see were closed. Still, we made the most of exploring the children’s galleries, and analyzing how to engage younger audiences (a must for our own exhibit)
Saturday we spent the whole day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We attempted to take a group selfie before we went in; enjoy the disembodied chaperone heads.
The students’ task was to analyze everything going on in the museum, from the pace, price, and style of admission, to the labels on each piece of art, to the collections themselves, to the layout of the gift shop, to the question of whether there were enough benches.
All of this, of course, was an occasion to reflect on our own exhibit, and what we should and shouldn’t be doing as we create our exhibit space. Our subject was the relationship between Captain America in comics and film and the events unfolding at the same time. Even at the Met, Captain America was never far from our mind.
It was a hectic few days, but we saw so much, absorbed so many great new ideas, and had a lot of fun. By Sunday, no one really wanted to go home.
The trip was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all of us. Our deepest thanks to the Bright Fund in American History, which made it possible for us to engage so fully in the cultural life of New York.
P.S. And for some of us to meet Lin-Manuel Miranda.