April 10, 2000
UCDC course on museums and memorials will look at what's on display--and what's not
When UCSC juniors and seniors go to Washington, D.C., as participants of the UCDC
internship program, it's almost inevitable that they will visit some of the city's
remarkable monuments and museums. But Paul Skenazy, UCSC's resident faculty member
for the program this quarter, hopes his students will not only appreciate what they
see, but also what they don't.
As an example, Skenazy mentions a past exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. The 1995 exhibit was originally titled: "The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II," but, following pressure from veterans' organizations and such congressional representatives as Nancy Kassenbaum, the large, interpretive exhibit was replaced by what Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman described as "a less complicated display." That display focused on the technology of the Enola Gay--the B-29 bomber used in the atomic mission that destroyed Hiroshima.
"The exhibit originally addressed issues of racism and political strategy," Skenazy says. "Why choose to bomb Japanese citizens? And, was it necessary to use the bomb at all? There were reliable reports at the time that the Japanese were near surrender and this was clear to the Pacific command. Many historians have documented the fact that the bombing was done not only against Japan, but as a warning to Russia, to prove we could detonate an A-bomb. This is a very good example of how an exhibit always has a point of view, and that in trying to represent ideas, museums often come into conflict with deeply held American beliefs."
"I want to ask what's not in D.C. as well," Skenazy says. "There's really been very little done on the Asian American community until recently. And a lot of American Indian history has been consigned to the Natural History Museum, as have African artifacts, which raises a lot of questions right there," Skenazy says. (A new museum, dedicated exclusively to the history of American Indians is being constructed in the city and will open in 2002, but the major display on American Indians in Washington, D.C., has always been housed at the Natural History Museum, which is the home of the nation's collections on prehistoric mammals, dinosaurs, geology, and marine life, among others.)
Skenazy has tried to create assignments that ask students to think about their own lives in material contexts, putting them in the position of a museum curator. For example, he is asking students to assemble their own collection of objects to represent themselves. "In this way, they have to think about what the objects tell us and how their own stories come out of things and need elaboration for us to understand them. They become mini-curators. We can talk then about what they are revealing, what they are hiding, what other objects they could have included. I'm asking them to think about their lives, but I'm also asking them to reflect on the issues they're dealing with in museum display."
To add depth to their museum experiences, Skenazy will have students meet with several curators: Tom Crouch, who helped create the original vision of the Enola Gay exhibit; Franklin Odo, who will speak about an exhibit of drawings by Roger Shimamura based his grandmother's diaries from a Japanese American internment camp; and Jennifer Jones, who curated an exhibit of objects from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Skenazy is coupling museum visits with personal writing and the reading of memoirs. For example, when his students visit the Maryland research facility affiliated with the National Museum of the American Indian, they will read work by N. Scott Momaday. Visits to the "Field to Factory" exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (which concerns African American immigration from the South to North from 1915 to 1940) will be complemented by reading the work of Richard Wright. Along with visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the class will read Art Spiegelman's Maus I and Maus II.
When they view the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, students will read various pieces by visitors to the wall and will also talk about a timely exhibit at the American History Museum, titled "Personal Legacy: Healing of a Nation." Among the items the exhibit includes are letters, beer bottles, teddy bears, childhood blankets, and photographs. "There is a wonderful piece," Skenazy says, "that is a pink triangle, fading into white, with a note underneath saying something to the effect of, 'They honored you for killing men, they scorned you for loving men.' "
Wanting to explore the connections between institutional memory and personal memory, Skenazy is having his students use their experiences to inspire their own memoir writing. "Most of my writing courses are not intended for writers, per se. I'm interested in getting people who don't think of themselves as writers to get comfortable with putting things on the page," he says.
There was, Skenazy says, one other inspiration for this course. "I simply wanted to figure out a means for getting the students out exploring the city."