The Fox Point Oral History Project

Posted on April 27th, 2012 by

A blog post by Outreach Coordinator Rachael Binning.

This past month I had the pleasure of being on a panel at the Oral History Mid-Atlantic Region (OHMAR) Conference. The presentation was very special for me because I had the opportunity to talk about my work at the Jewish Museum of Maryland and my graduate work while studying at Brown University. The conference allowed me to have a mini-reunion with my fellow Brown alumni who I worked with on a project called The Fox Point Oral History Project.

One of my greatest accomplishments at Brown was working on The Fox Point Oral History Project. The project began as an oral history and community engagement project that has continued to grow each year. While I was a student I interviewed former and past residents of Fox Point, a neighborhood that borders on Brown’s campus. The residents had wonderful stories and photographs that documented the diverse communities that lived and worked there, including Cape Verdeans, Portuguese, and African Americans. The neighborhood is located on the water in Providence so many residents there worked as longshoremen and stevedores.  The landscape of the neighborhood has changed and population has transitioned from a mostly working class neighborhood to one filled with student, professors, and professionals. Students and teachers at Brown realized the importance of this neighborhood and how it has rapidly changed and therefore began collecting oral histories and photographs from long time residents of the neighborhood.

After establishing a relationship with the community and collecting stories and memories we proceeded to share this history with the current residents of the neighborhood. We established a relationship with the local elementary school called Vartan Gregorian Elementary School and installed an exhibit in the hallways of the school using photographs and oral histories from the oral histories we collected. We then worked with the middle school students to teach them about the history of their neighborhood. After studying the history of the neighborhood the 6th graders added their own photographs to the exhibit that documented their current perspective of the neighborhood. Finally, the 6th graders were trained as docents and gave tours of the exhibition to their fellow students and members of the community at the exhibition opening and throughout the year.

The Fox Point Oral History Project was a wonderful opportunity for me. Talking about it at the OHMAR panel in relation to my work at the JMM really reminded me how much my graduate work helped to launch my career doing outreach and community engagement work. It also made me appreciate how lucky I am to have the opportunity to continue to do great community-museum work at the JMM through projects such as our partnership with Commodore John Rodgers Middle School. I’m looking forward to see what community projects are in store for next year.

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Transcribing Oral Histories

Posted on July 25th, 2011 by

A blog post by Summer Intern Carrie Coviello.

One of the tasks that I have to work on for the Levindale exhibition is to transcribe an oral history.  Transcribing an oral history means that I listen to the taped conversation between the interviewer and the interviewee and type up literally every word that the interviewer and interviewee say.  It is similar to being a court stenographer in that you record everything that goes on except you are not actually present at the interview.  As you can imagine, it can be a very interesting but a very slow and tedious process.

All the transcribing is done on the computer.  The recording is digitized so one can listen to it through Windows Media Player or iTunes.  You put on good quality headphones to block outside noises (though if you’re like me, you will hear things through the headphones anyway) and click “play” on your selected oral history.  The oral history I have mainly been working on is an interview of a Levindale employee.  When you have heard enough words that you can remember, you click “pause” on the oral history tape and type out what the person said exactly as they said it.  This process is repeated until the tape ends.

Headphones for Transcribing

Transcribing is a slow process.  Many times, you have to play a section of the tape over and over again to understand what a person said.  Even when you play the tape over and over again you still don’t know what the person said.  Or when you do know what the person said but have to figure out the spelling of the word or the person’s name that was mentioned.  It is also unbelievable how many words a person can say in just one minute.  There are times when almost a full page, single-spaced, can be typed with the interviewee’s words and not even a minute has gone by.

An example of what an oral history transcription looks like.

The upside of transcribing is that you get to listen in on the individual who is being interviewed and get to know his or her story.  If you are a nosy person, this is an excellent job for you.  I love hearing about people’s childhoods, what their school was like and how they ended up in the job that they are in.  I like to think up how I would respond to the questions asked or what my parents would say or what my grandmothers would have said.

I hope that in my future professional museum career I will be able to conduct oral history interviews because they are truly good resources for historical and cultural information.

Hard at work transcribing.

 

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CAJM Conference Wrap Up

Posted on March 30th, 2011 by

Professional development is a valued activity at the JMM. Staff members are encouraged to attend lectures, workshops, and conferences. The benefits of learning new skills from experts in the field help us grow in our jobs as we gather information and resources that we bring back with us. Furthermore, these programs often provide opportunities to network with colleagues from institutions – large and small – from across the country and to learn about interesting and innovative programs taking place at other museums. While the benefits of these kinds of programs are obviously, it can sometimes be challenging figuring out a strategy for implementing what you have learned as it is so easy for the materials you gathered and notes you’ve taken to get buried as you return to the piles of work, phone messages, and emails that accumulate while you are away from your desk. Recently, I had the chance to attend Our Stories, Our Museums: New Chapters For Jewish Culture, the annual conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums along with several of my colleagues.

The conference took place at the recently opened National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia where nearly 200 professionals from Jewish museums from across the country (as well as from Europe) gathered for three intensive days of lectures, panel discussions, visits to museums, and networking. I left the conference feeling inspired by the amazing work going on at Jewish museums across the country and excited by the many model programs that I learned about.

NMAJH Core Exhibition

The tote bag that I received from the conference was filled with legal pads with notes scribbled furiously upon them from the sessions that I attended as well as resource materials distributed by session speakers, not to mention program brochures picked up from other museums. The bag sat untouched under my desk for a couple of weeks. Finally, I started going through materials and sat down to review my notes.

The bag in question, chock full of informational goodies!

One of the difficult decisions you often have to make at conferences is deciding which program to attend as multiple sessions are scheduled simultaneously. Do you attend the session with a panel comprised of several renowned museum professional sharing their collective wisdom from many years in the field or the session devoted to fundraising 101 complete with practical hands-on ideas? Go to workshop geared to my specific responsibilities at the JMM or a panel discussion on interesting topics about the museum field in general. Fortunately, as I went through my notes, I realized that because several other JMM staff members attend the conference and had the foresight to “divide and conquer” each of us had attended different sessions so we could share what we had learned with the larger group. We all decided to meet one day over lunch to compare notes and resources from the sessions that we had attended. This proved to be a wonderful strategy for reviewing session content and to continue brainstorming how we might collectively implement some of the ideas gathered at the conference.

Just a few of the many materials and notepads from the conference.

Of particular interest to our group was a session that I attended devoted to the topic, Turning Stories Into History: Transforming the Narrative Through Oral History and Digital Storytelling. Three speakers – representing three different Jewish museums (from New York, Connecticut, and Denver) discussed three very different techniques for incorporating oral history interviews and personal stories into exhibitions, films, and other programs. One of the speakers, Deanne Kapnik from the Mizel Museum in Denver, spoke about a new museum initiative, the Community Narratives Project, a collection of digital stories gathered from a broad cross section of Denver’s Jewish community that have become a key feature of a new permanent exhibit, 4,000 Year Road Trip: Gathering Sparks. (To learn more about this program, visit the Museum’s website.) This initiative resonated with our staff, as we have been working to develop creative ideas for how to develop new programs that integrate storytelling and oral history interviews for audiences of all backgrounds. This is definitely a program that we intend to learn more about as we move forward with our plans.

While many museums have been forced to cut back on professional development activities out of economic necessity, I am proud to work for an institution where professional development is still considered a priority. The benefits for both the staff attending as well as the institution are many – learning best practices from other professionals, gathering resources for programming and exhibit development, and meeting and networking with colleagues from other institutions.

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