Broadening Horizons: Graduate Students Dive into Curation at a Community Museum

By Misha Appeltova, Zach Nacev, and Gregory Valdespino

We stopped in front of a painting portraying a group of villagers by a river. “What do you see?” asked Elsie Hector Hernandez, owner and director of the Haitian American Museum of Chicago (HAMOC). One of us answered that there were villagers doing laundry, washing themselves, collecting water for households, getting their animals to drink. There were no roads, no cars, no concrete buildings. Traditional Haitian culture centered around a river? Lack of infrastructure due to the poverty of a state caused by international and domestic politics? All wrong. “Think hard!” Elsie implored. The grilling continued for a few more minutes until she laughed and explained that water is a quintessential element in Haiti; poisoning it causes death, just like after the 2010 earthquake when UN forces contaminated water leading to a cholera outbreak. 

Fig.1. A Prezi slide on a tablet allows visitors to access information about artists, and other details about the hurricane disaster in Haiti.

In the spring quarter of 2017, we took Leora Auslander and Lindsey Martin’s Broadening Horizons course at the University of Chicago, part of the Making History Work pilot program for the AHA–Mellon Career Diversity for Historians initiative. As an element of the course, we collaborated with Hernandez to curate an interactive oral history and visual art exhibit at HAMOC. The exhibit, Vwa Yo Apre Matye – Voices after Matthew, recalled the response to and recovery from Hurricane Matthew, which devastated Haiti in October 2016. The experience made us aware of the power of narrative, our passion for telling compelling stories, and our role as historians in engaging and challenging popular histories.

Working with HAMOC proved exciting, enriching, as well as challenging. We were lucky that Hernandez had a vision for the museum that coincided with ours and that she trusted our creativity. In both the Voices after Matthew exhibit and the museum’s permanent collection, which we helped enhance, our common goal was to challenge stereotypical images of Haiti as a failed state dependent on outside aid and a poor, disaster-prone society incapable of marshalling its own human and material resources. In addition, we wanted to demonstrate that natural disasters are complex products of environmental factors, economic interventions, state and international politics, and (often counterproductive) foreign aid programs. In the spirit of Hernandez’s communicative and engaging personality, and her emphasis on interaction with visitors to the museum, we strove to design the temporary and permanent exhibits by drawing on the recent museum literature, which emphasizes multisensory and interactive elements of museum exhibits.

Voices after Matthew displayed original artwork by Haitian artists portraying destruction but also resilience, and community-led reconstruction. Since the exhibit was centered around the paintings, we did not want any contextualizing material to overshadow the pieces. We opted to present all additional information on tablets, using the Prezi application (fig. 1). Biographical data and interviews with the artists (in Créole with English subtitles, which were translated by volunteer community members) were complemented with pictures of destruction from the hurricane, news clippings and videos, and historical background to the various forces shaping Haiti’s vulnerability to disasters. The final element in the exhibit contained a message board encouraging visitors to share their thoughts about the artwork. Throughout the presentation, we aimed to point out community-centered reconstruction initiatives as well as challenge stereotypical disaster narratives (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Slides at the museum attempted to challenge stereotypical disaster narratives.

The most exciting part of this work was meeting with members of the Haitian community in Chicago. We wanted to hear their stories of the hurricane, and the stressful process of getting in touch with their family members and organizing relief efforts from Chicago. We were surprised to learn how fragmented the Haitian community in Chicago is, and how difficult this fragmentation was for any relief efforts. A video of interviews with these Haitian Americans was included in the Prezi’s background material.

Working with the permanent exhibit featuring paintings on themes of Haitian history and culture proved to be more challenging. The museum had a “big idea” connecting the individual pieces, but that narrative, as well as the stories of the individual paintings, was always only presented to visitors orally by Hernandez. We wanted to give visitors a chance to see the story of the museum even when Hernandez was not there.

To achieve this goal, we created interactive labels for the museum’s paintings, grounding them in the stories Hernandez told about these pieces and her style of “grilling” visitors. The labels were flippable, featuring a question to engage visitors on the front, and a “story” about the piece on the other. The goal was to have visitors move in between the text and the painting, thus collecting pieces of Haitian history through visual material. Working on a tight budget, we had to work around the financial constraints typical of small, community museums: quotes for the interactive labels we received were around $200 a piece! We complemented these labels with welcoming text, inviting visitors to interact with the museum and Haitian culture, as well as with more conventional informational sheets containing a timeline of Haitian history and culture. Since the museum hosts events for children, we also created a “scavenger hunt,” in the hope that children would engage with Haitian culture.

The work made us aware of ourselves as historians in new ways, inspiring us to incorporate insights from the course and the curatorial work into our career plans. As a secondary school history teacher, Zach has been working to make history education more multifaceted and sensorial. The experience inspired him to start thinking about including artifacts and projects focused on local or school history. Greg was thrilled to work with community members and wants to make community engagement part of his future work. He has been actively thinking about pedagogical projects that would get University of Chicago graduate students connected to high school students. Misha appreciated that the course showed graduate students the many career options history PhDs have.

Overall, the work provided us with a greatly welcome boost of self-confidence one rarely gets as a PhD student. Elsie Hernandez was a greatly supportive, enthusiastic mentor, always open to our ideas, teaching us the various aspects of museum curating. Our collaboration with her showed us that our skills and interests can play a part in bringing people together in meaningful ways outside of the university. We appreciated how the community museum provided a first-hand glimpse into how our work as academic historians is received, accepted, criticized, and, in some instances, challenged by the communities it touches. For each of us, the project proved eye-opening, in its context as much as its content.

Zach Nacev

Gregory Valdespino

Misha Appeltova

Misha Appeltova, Zach Nacev, and Gregory Valdespino are doctoral students in history at the University of Chicago.

The AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative seeks to better prepare graduate students and early career historians for a range of career options, within and beyond the academy. “Historians in Training” features graduate students working in diverse settings and exploring career prospects along the way. 

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