Saturday, February 2, 2013

Briann Greenfield: What row to hoe?

The author picking spinach in February.

What role should a state museum, like the Connecticut Historical Society (CHS), play in preserving and interpreting the history of agriculture and food? How can such an organization tell the history in a way that fits its specific mission, institutional strengths and priorities? I ask these questions from a several perspectives. I am a Professor of History and Public History Program Coordinator at Central Connecticut State University where I teach courses in museum studies and material culture that regularly use the museum’s collection. I am also a member of CHS’s Collections Steering Committee and Deaccession Task Force, two groups charged with enhancing the collection’s strength, relevance, and overall quality. Finally, I’m interested on a very personal level as someone deeply involved in the local food movement as a 4- season gardener on my own city lot and a regular volunteer at Urban Oaks Organic Farm, a 12-year old farm in an urban food desert. These perspectives make me see both the potential for agriculture and food history, but also make me cautious about committing limited resources to its pursuit.

It is clear to me that local food advocates could be a wonderful audience. I know them to be a community that thinks broadly about issues, understands complex social and economic forces, and is dedicated to their cause. I also believe that there is a natural synergy between local food advocates’ desire to connect with producers and merchants in their area and a historical society’s mission to cultivate a sense of place. Both are searching for a deeper connection with their community and both regularly seek out that which is distinctive or unique. It’s also worth recognizing that the historically- and environmentally-minded share an orientation to the future as they preserve resources for the next generation. But I also wonder to what degree local food advocates would become a long-term audience for the museum. Is this an audience whose interests will be limited to programs designed specifically around food and agriculture themes? Is this an audience that will support the museum with donations or volunteer time? Again relying on my own observations, local food advocates have an activist agenda and seek not just knowledge or experience, but the chance to effect social change. If a historical society does not address that aspect of their motivation, is the match really a good fit? I look forward to hearing from other museum professionals with more experience in this area.

Beyond the question of cultivating local food advocates as a museum audience is a historical society’s responsibility to collect and preserve this fundamental aspect of the state’s history. Having worked on CHS’s deaccession and collecting committees for several years, I’m very cognizant of the need to collect strategically. Staff and storage are both limited resources and must be used wisely. For starters, this means not replicating what has already been done. With Old Sturbridge Village, one of the country’s largest living history museums less than an hour away, CHS has an opportunity to move beyond the traditional focus on early American tools and farming techniques and create a collecting strategy with relevance to the local food movement. What would such a collecting strategy look like? What, specifically, would we collect? I am just beginning to think about these issues (and have not even considered the question of how to acquire items), but I already see potential for collecting in several areas:

  • History of the seed industry in Connecticut. A few years ago, I attended a session at the Connecticut Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association conference in which founders of the Hudson Valley Seed Library explained how they had used the artwork on 19th and early 20th century seed packages to identify recovered heirloom varieties. CHS currently has several seed catalogues in its collection. Additional materials would provide valuable insight into this central agricultural industry.
  • History of home food production. Home food production is a subject of particular importance to today’s local food movement. Earlier traditions include Victory Gardens, back-to-the land movements, and the distinct practices of ethnic immigrants. Already in the collections are books by Adelma Simmons (1903-1997), a well-known herbalist who promoted home herb gardening. The Simmons’s materials are good reminder that the recent past has a history that is ripe for collecting too.
  • History of cooking and foodways. Students in my museum studies class recently completed a small exhibit using CHS’s cookbook collection. Cookbooks are often narrowly interpreted as culinary history, a history limited to cooking methods, recipes, ingredients, and gastronomic traditions. But working with these materials helped me see that they also could reveal a lot about our relationship to food. I was particularly struck by how well the cookbooks documented changes in food sources, particularly the rise of prepackaged convenience foods.

Clearly, the areas above are just a start. I am especially interested in collecting materials that reveal developments in labor practices, business history, the market economy, and government policies. I look forward to brainstorming with public historians, farmers, and local food movement proponents.

~ Briann Greenfield, Central Connecticut State University

1 comment:

  1. Have been meaning to post some thoughts all week - it's been one of those weeks!

    First of all, I'm really happy to know about the Hudson Valley Seed Library. Very interesting project, with interesting real life/historical research aspects.

    And I was also struck by your comments about whether local food activists would be an engaged or long-term type of audience for the museum. One thing that occurs to me is that we may need to think of new ways to conceptualize what this relationship might be, going beyond the traditional presenter/audience or museum/visitor formations. I think those categories may not actually work all that well for the kinds of projects that might create benefit for both farmers/food activists and museums/public historians.

    So I wonder about thinking of ways that a museum might take on some of the research into something like those seed packets and heirloom varieties, and could then create exhibitry around the project and/or work with food activists to show visitors how to locate and save local varieties of seeds. The farm/food people might occupy a kind of middle ground *between* museums and audiences, and one thing that might motivate them is that museums and public historians have the skills to attract and help educate audiences, which is a key part of building a consumer base of people who understand what's involved in growing and selling food on a small-scale.