Collaborative Cultural Heritage Preservation

This week I took a look at two tools — Museum on Main Street (MoMS) and The Will to Adorn — for collecting and preserving stories and cultural practices from people across the U.S. Both of these (MoMS’ “Stories from Main Street is not longer an app) are part of Smithsonian programming. Each facilitates co-facilitation by community members and has some ability to connect the stories that participants submit to place.

Museum on Main Street is a Smithsonian program that sends traveling exhibits into small, rural communities across the United States. The program has visited over 1,600 communities of 500 to 25,000 people since 1994. MoMS has a “Stories from Main Street” (SfMS) feature to “enable participatory collecting” of experiences of people who attended a traveling MoMS exhibit and beyond.

The SfMS is currently collecting stories from folks on three campaigns (see above). I thought that it was interesting that the project is aiming to include stories both from people who visited an exhibit and those who had not.

They also include guidance for stories, formats, and inspiration to those who wish to submit. To contribute, you first need to create an account, then the website walks you through the submission process. Notice that “location” is a feature of the submission form.

This is the second page of stories included in the “Life in Our Town” collection.

On the other end, there is a repository of stories which you can filter by topic or theme. You can also use the search function, but it malfunctioned a few times when I attempted to use it. One last feature I found interesting was that there are lesson plans and ways that teachers can have classes contribute or use stories collected as part of this project.

I also took a look at The Will to Adorn (which is still an app!) which is a product of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The project primarily consists of an app that allows cultural preservationists to share and explore “the diversity of African American identities as expressed through the cultural aesthetics and traditional arts of the body, dress, and adornment.” Unlike MoMS, the website for this was really buggy — it’s definitely all about the app. The website does contain a pretty comprehensive research guide that contains tons of helpful guidance about different methods of data collection. Here’s the link: https://willtoadorn.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/WTAResearchModulesResearchGuide_TheWillToAdorn.pdf I read in the research guide that the name of the project comes from a Zora Neale Hurston observation “that ‘the will to adorn’ is one of the primary characteristics of African American expression.”

The app is pretty simple – you first select whether you want to share a story or listen.

When I chose to listen, it started playing a random selection. By clicking “more” you can filter by question, region, gender, or age of the storyteller.

It’s pretty easy to share a story too. You decide which question to answer and include information about location, gender, and age. (I didn’t actually share one).

These are the questions you chose from.

These are both really interesting examples of digital platforms for collaborative cultural preservation. I thought it was interesting that the Stories from Main Street grew out of physical traveling exhibits and The Will to Adorn website mentioned that traveling physical exhibits might be in the project’s future.

Do you know of any other apps or platforms that cultural heritage organizations use to co-collaborate? Questions about how this works? Do you think you would use either of these for leisure? Would these be useful for researchers?

8 Replies to “Collaborative Cultural Heritage Preservation”

  1. Hi Elisabeth, thank you for a great post! I enjoyed exploring all the avenues of the Museum on Main Street web page, especially the lesson plans and bibliographies they offered. I think it is great that the Smithsonian goes beyond just setting up an exhibit in towns by offering additional resources for educators and students. The hometown teams exhibit specifically caught my attention. Professional and amateur sports are inextricable with the identity of towns across the country. The nationalistic aspect of sports is another theme that I was excited to see incorporated into the exhibit. Along with mentioning how the amalgam of emotions that brew in both players and spectators is encapsulated by a wide range of popular culture. I think the Debates and Controversies lesson plan, which encourages students to examine how their local sports teams continue to be a space that reinforces and challenges racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ableism, and the health and safety of athletes, could change how we frame sports in contemporary society.

  2. Thanks for a wonderful post, Elisabeth! I had a lot of fun exploring both of these through your post and on my own time. I wanted to respond to your question of whether these might be useful for researchers, and in a short answer: yes, I think they would be. Cultural history as a field is still gaining steam in the world of history, but I think platforms like these lend themselves to that type of research. By understanding how a community interacted with a certain exhibit, future researchers can learn more about what that community was thinking at this point in time. Reactions to exhibits and clothing can tell a lot about a person or a community after all, and if it is documented these can give future researchers a direct glimpse into what one particular person within a community was thinking.

  3. Great post Elisabeth! I enjoyed exploring these during our forced time at home. It was a break from the craziness for sure! To answer your question about the usefulness of these for teachers: yes for sure! Cultural history is not my cup of tea but the importance of this area of history cannot be overstated. It is a crucial aspect to understanding the entire picture of American history, and schools in this country do not do enough to tech that aspect to their students. (Not at my school at least.) And these tools would bring a history class into the 21st century and get students engaged and interested. Way more interesting to play around on an app than read a history textbook!

  4. Thanks Elisabeth! I really enjoyed looking through some of the submissions on the Museum on Main Street site and was glad to know that the Smithsonian had this space for community histories. I even found some local features that I recognized from home! Like Leah I appreciated the lessons plans and reading lists for educators but always wonder if these are tools that are actually utilized by teachers. Do you think these resources are something that you would use in your own classroom?

    1. Thanks, Kimberly! I’m not sure that these are tools I would use in the classroom. Not because I don’t want to, but I have found that straying from the traditional history curriculum can be difficult to do. In the case of these histories, I think that has a lot to do with something that Jess mentioned — cultural history is still gaining steam and I don’t think that it has really broken through in traditional or typical history classes. There, in my experience, is still a real focus on “great men” political history which I don’t love. I could see teachers using these resources more in the case of an elective course where they tend to have more freedom. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Great post and discussion! I always find these apps so interesting and compelling and also somewhat challenging and frustrating.

    That Will to Adorn app is such an interesting prompt and concept for a form of focused oral history style public collecting and documentation project. With that said, the focus of the app on a particular instantiation of the Folklife Festival makes it something of a one off kind of thing. I think that app is an important example of the kinds of challenges that come from trying to develop something like this for a singular event instead of building something that can support your overarching program. That is, it was a lot of effort that ultimately does not seem to align as core infrastructure that can support ongoing programmatic efforts of the folkways program.

    In that vein, the Museum from Mainstreet story collecting platform seems to be a much stronger fit into the organizational mission of that ongoing program. The system that they built supports ongoing programmatic work for the physical traveling exhibit.

  6. Thanks, Trevor! Yes, the Museum on Mainstreet app seems much more sustainable — that’s even evidenced in the digital platforms. The Will to Adorn app website did not appear well maintained while the Museum on Mainstreet app had a plethora of resources for contributing and engaging with others’ contributions.

  7. Elisabeth,
    Thank you for an excellent post!

    The spatial implications of both these platforms cannot be overstated. It is fascinating to think, for one, that the Smithsonian’s campus is grounded in an urban setting, while its traveling exhibition project is grounded in rural settings. I wonder how those spaces, and their historical divergence & intersections, determined interpretation w/MoMS.

    Sticking with the MoMS project’s “Your Rural Home,” I find it to be a wonderful example of how contributors to the project are sensory-inscribed; in short, lived experiences, identity, and inhabited space all conflate to create a users interpretation of their “rural home.” Lots to think about here! Thanks again for your post.

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