Joanna Steinburg

For me, one of the most exciting facets of the Public History program was being given the opportunity to curate an exhibition, which is currently on view at Fales Library and Special Collections (in the NYU Library). The project grew out of my graduate work and evolved into an exhibition that explores the synergies between avant-garde artists who performed at Judson Memorial Church (located in the heart of the Village on Washington Square South) in the 1960s and the church ministry and congregation.

During my time in the Public History Program (2008-20010) I concentrated in American history and researched topics on photographic collections by doing fieldwork at theMuseum of the City of New York and the International Center of Photography. I had decided to pursue a degree in Public History because I was looking for a program that would allow me to continue to study history, and would give me the training to apply my studies in a museum setting. After graduating from Oberlin College in 2006 with a degree in history and visual studies, I have been employed in various capacities in the education department at the Museum of the City of New York. At the present time, I coordinate the Museum’s Saturday Academy program, which is a free elective program for students in grades 8-12 interested in American History or SAT preparation. Each day I teach programs to school groups of all ages on a range of topics, such as urban planning and colonial history. I also develop educational materials for the Museum’s temporary exhibits.

The exhibition at Fales grew out of an assignment I was given in my Oral History course (taught by Professor Rachel Bernstein, a historian) in which the students in the class researched different aspects of Judson Church’s history and involvement in social activism and the arts. I enrolled in this course because I was interested in being actively involved in a local history project that would allow me to study the neighborhood I grew up in and that has changed dramatically over the years. I was eager to study Greenwich Village’s artistic and political history, and to work on a project that was collaborative and would involve meeting people who could share their personal experiences and insights. In the end I conducted 20 oral histories. I was drawn to Judson Church when I learned that it was a popular site for avant-garde performances, and wanted to research what brought such disparate communities together in the first place. The exhibition I planned could only happen because of all the many resources the Public History program provided (an array of relevant courses, Professor Wosh’s and Rachel Bernstein’s close guidance, the incredible Downtown Art collection at Fales Library and the support of Marvin Taylor and his staff, and finally, the proximity to the rich history of the Village).

It was exciting to mobilize disparate groups to play an active role in constructing a new interpretation of a topic that been heavily studied, but mostly from an art historical standpoint. Most of the literature described the many performances at Judson, most of which have not been recorded. By so thoroughly documenting the artistic works themselves, some of these studies lost sight of the integral role the church played in this history, and the many social movements of the 1960s that informed the art. These included the Free Speech Movement, Women’s Liberation, Gay Rights, Liberation Theology, and the movement against the war in Vietnam.

What I learned from this experience is that it is easier to mobilize communities when you try to reveal the contributions of groups who are left out of history or whose achievements have been overlooked. Through involving many people in the process of constructing an exhibition or expanding the archive, new material resurfaced (in this case new footage, photographs, documents, and new stories shared in the oral histories). One of the challenges of working with different communities is that it takes more time to assemble a project. It can also be difficult to juggle the sometimes conflicting interests of these groups inasmuch as they have different reasons or goals for exploring their histories, including garnering support for their present-day needs. It was great to jump in, and learn by doing, with the advisement of my professors and the staff at Fales Library. I should note that the exhibition is currently up and will be on view until January 7th.  I look forward to seeing the creative work of my peers in the program, and have learned so much from working with them in my classes.

Posted December 2010

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