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.|
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!