Sunday, April 15, 2012

In search of the multivocal conference panel

I'm getting ready for my annual pilgrimage to the National Council on Public History conference in a couple of days, and this reminds me that I've been meaning to write a post about another recent conference I participated in, the New England regional meeting of the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALFHAM), which was held in Bristol, Rhode Island early last month.

The usual goal with a conference panel is to create something that fits together cohesively--a set of complementary papers or presentations, often capped off with some unifying comments by a discussant. In practice, what this often means is that panels get put together by fairly similar people who approach things in a fairly similar way. Over the years, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of conference panels I've been to that successfully brought together different kinds of voices within the same framework--for example, scholars and labor organizers, or literary and academic writers. That more "multivocal" kind of panel--which doesn't always work neatly but which has the potential to "break the frame" of more inward-looking combinations of people and ideas--was what my co-organizer and I were after with our offering at ALFHAM.

ALFHAM, founded in 1970 to coordinate efforts and education within the then-new living history movement, is an obvious starting-place for anyone who's interested in the nexus of farming and historic sites. I'd been vaguely planning to try to connect in some way with people involved in the organization, and found the impetus I'd been looking for when Michelle Moon, Assistant Director of Education for Adult Programs at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., got in touch with me after hearing me speak at a conference at Plimoth Plantation in the fall. Michelle is active in the Slow Food movement and has worked to link her museum work with food activism at the Peabody Essex, Strawbery Banke Museum in New Hampshire, and elsewhere. Like me, she's been looking for ways to make the food/history link more explicit and to make a case for the importance of historic preservation and interpretation in creating broader, more informed and critical public analyses of food systems and all that connect to them.

The c.1840 barn located at Waters Farm, Sutton, Mass.
So Michelle and I put together a panel for the regional ALFHAM conference, aiming for a very specific mix of scholarship, case studies, and practical advice.  We enlisted a couple of people involved in food and farming at historic sites in the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor in southeastern Mass. and northern Rhode Island:  Pat Nedoroscik, vice-president of Waters Farm Preservation Inc. the non profit organization charged with the operation of the 120 acre Waters Farm property in Sutton, Mass., and Lisa Mosczynski, who runs a seasonal farmers market at the E.N. Jenckes Store Museum in Douglas, Mass.  Yours truly supplied some scholarly/historical context for the emerging reconnection between "enclaved" historic sites and present-day working agriculture, Michelle talked about her rationale for emphasizing food and farming in many of the public programs she's organized, Pat gave us an overview of the family and farming history of Waters Farm, and Lisa got into the nitty-gritty of running a farmers market (including challenging us to name the most problematic product that farmers bring to sell*).

These were four quite different approaches, but it was heartening to see how well they all fit together, and how the discussion that followed ranged from considering big historical questions to thinking about the practicalities of promoting locally-sourced food.  I was really happy to see scholarship as just one piece of a broader conversation, rather than a privileged or separate discussion.  Michelle's examples gave me hope that imaginative public history practitioners at museum sites can really take this local-food phenomenon and run with it, Pat's story of the Waters family confirmed the long history of community concern in New England with preserving agricultural land, and Lisa's account of dealing with boards of health and other issues provided an important corrective to more utopian or abstract dreams of how we might reinvent a more local or regional food system.  The discussion wasn't conclusive or tidy, but despite that, or maybe because of that, it felt very productive (in addition to inspiring me to want to visit these historic sites sometime soon).

Any similar experiences with multivocal conference panels? 

*And any ideas what the most challenging farmers market product might be?  Post them below!

No comments:

Post a Comment