How are institutions shaping their programming to reflect an increasingly pluralistic museum-going public? As audience demographics continue to shift, representation matters—particularly in highly diverse cities like Philadelphia. Storytelling can become a tool for bringing to light varied and often underrepresented narratives, and can foster empathy and connection.
A Philadelphia-based arts funder and a professional storyteller share approaches to imaginative and inclusive storytelling in institutional contexts, with case studies from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Temple University’s Temple Contemporary art gallery, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Director of Exhibitions & Public Interpretation
The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage
This presentation was filmed at MuseumNext NYC in Autumn 2019.
Bill Adair: Let’s do this. We’re a multidisciplinary grant maker and a hub for knowledge sharing. We give a lot away. We give away a lot of money. Every year we give away approximately 10 million, up to 10 million a year for project grants in Philadelphia, in two categories, in performance, music, dance and theatre. And then the programme that I run, we call exhibitions and public interpretations, essentially our museum programme, visual arts, history, living collections, natural history, et cetera. We also offer direct support to artists, the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, which I hope many of you have heard of. Every year we give 12 grants of 75,000 to artists to essentially continue doing their work.
We’re very audience focused. One of the first questions that we ask whenever we talk to someone seeking project support from us is, who is this project for? So we think about audience engagement and community engagement as core values for the support of any kind of cultural product that we want to support. We support lots of events and yeah, we certainly hope every year to have an impact on the cultural ecology of Philadelphia. We’re the second biggest grant maker in the arts in that region. We also have a publications and knowledge sharing. Can you guys hear me well? Okay, good. Too loud?
I was perfect when I started. Is this better? Sorry. I’m a loud person. We also have a publication here. Do I keep doing this? Is that why I’m driving you guys… Anyway, we have publications that we publish every year or every few years that are about contemporary practise and we hope can provide, we don’t like the term best practises, but interesting, useful, productive future-looking practises in arts and culture. And we have online publications as well. This is an example of our online publications and we have questions for practise and we take advantage of people who are coming through Philadelphia to interview them about their thoughts on contemporary practise and future practise. And there’s a whole collection of all of these super interesting brains talking about the kind of things that we’re talking about in the last couple of days and today on our website. So please check us out at Pewcenterarts.org.
Okay. First project. I want to talk about. One of the things that we like to focus on is providing organisations with what we call risk capital. Opportunities to experiment with projects they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise that allow them to go beyond business as usual. And in the case of these three projects, projects that allow organisations to experiment with new methods of storytelling and new strategies for inclusion. Some of these are more radical or out of the ordinary than others. This one was a particularly controversial project when it was presented a couple of years ago. It’s called Funeral For A Home. Has anyone heard of this project? A few of you have. It was commissioned by the Contemporary Art Gallery at Temple University. And the gallery has an advisory committee, a community advisory committee. And every year they meet several times with their community advisory committee and their community comes up with topics for the gallery to consider as part of its attempt to create relevancy for the area around Temple University.
One of the topics that emerged was the issues of housing, abandoned housing. One of Philadelphia’s largest issues is unused abandoned housing. And the city’s response uncreatively has been mostly to demolish those houses rather than figure out reuse. So there have been whole neighbourhoods that have been decimated by city sponsored demolition of these houses. So this was a funeral, a commissioned funeral for a home in West Philadelphia and the [man 00:05:15] neighbourhoods. So a series of artists were commissioned, a group of artists were commissioned to do oral histories to get to know the stories of this building, of this house that was scheduled for demolition. And to study the history of the vernacular architecture of the neighbourhood. A whole series of programmes, public programmes were developed on housing and the vernacular in North Philadelphia, in West Philadelphia, Northwest Philadelphia. And then this project culminated in a funeral that took place on the day of demolition.
So it included a pastor, the choir. One thing I haven’t said is that the artists who were commissioned embedded themselves in the neighbourhood for over a year to get to know the neighbours, to talk about this project, to talk through the issues with this project. They and we knew that it’s complicated to celebrate the demolition of a house in this neighbourhood and the community embraced the idea through a lot of discussion. They went to church every week at this pastor’s church, they got to know the pastor. They got to know the congregation, which is right up the street from the house. They got to know the choir and they created this really magical and amazing day that included a eulogy by this pastor, wonderful singing by the choir, a procession around the neighbourhood that laid wreaths on all of the spots where houses had been demolished and then a community meal on which we all sat down and talked about and asked people, “Hey, can you tell us stories about your house? I’ll tell you a story about my house.” It was really magical. I have a video.
Just a taste of a really amazing project. The next project we’re going to talk about is Philadelphia Assembled, which is the most unconventional project that the Philadelphia Museum of Art has ever done for its audiences. They commissioned the Dutch artists, Jeanne van Heeswijk to create an installation and a series of programmes that would be an effort to collect and exhibit stories of contemporary life in Philadelphia, and to somehow try to represent as many of the many, many, many different communities in Philadelphia and how these communities are facing contemporary challenges and making change, which many of our communities are. Philly is a very complicated city. I’m sure many of you know that. It’s booming in many ways. Our centre city is booming. We have increased population, overdevelopment, gentrification, and at the same time we’re the poorest large city in America and struggle with some very seemingly intractable problems that come along with poverty, of course, including we have the largest opioid epidemic and major incarceration issues.
So those were the topics. One of the first things that Jeanne did was develop with her community group, her first bunch of community advisors, themes or atmospheres to address in this. And then to hire people to work with her, she was smart enough to hire the master storyteller of Philadelphia, Denise Valentine, who is going to come up and talk about her role in the project. Can you come up, Denise? Ladies and gentlemen, Philadelphia’s master storyteller, Denise Valentine.
Denise Valentine: Thank you.
Bill Adair: Don’t speak too closely into the mic. They’ll laugh at you. Oh you have your own?
Denise Valentine: Good afternoon. So Bill, do you need your notebook here? I kind of need this space for… So I’m going to put it down here if you don’t mind. Philadelphia Assembled. Jeanne van Heeswijk has often said that Philadelphia Assembled is as vast as the city. She’s right. How then, can I tell you about it in 10 minutes or less? Which of the million and one stories that make up Philadelphia Assembled should I share with you? I could tell you about the day that the reconstructions atmosphere or working group members showed up to our public site to host an event after spending months securing a permit for this site. This was at the Tillman Community Garden. It was a model of an affordable house and a community garden. We were hosting a public event there about gentrification, and we had spent months trying to secure a permit and build trust with the residents of the neighbourhood. Well we showed up that day to find our model of affordable house padlocked and our flyers torn up and thrown to the ground.
We had been gentrified. Now, there are so many different stories I could tell you but I’m going to focus on the stories that speak to my role as the storyteller for my working group, but also for the creative team. And also those that speak to the power of storytelling. I’m going to tell you about the times that I was intentional about using the methodology, the techniques and the skills of storytelling, traditional storytelling, to help the group reach its goals. And like I said, that illustrate the power of story. Story as method, as narrative, inquiry, that’s a tongue twister. Narrative inquiry, which I’ll explain a little bit more about later and story as practise. That’s applied storytelling, that is object based storytelling and performative actions. I’m going to share three short stories or vignettes. One I’ll call Old Masters. One is called A Gathering at Goldsby’s House.
And the other one is called How an Earthquake Delivered a Little Slave Girl to Philadelphia in a Silver Dish. Old Masters, a critics comments, a review, and an article about Philadelphia Assembled urged old-line museum goers to conveniently dismiss the show, because it seemed to tell people how to think and to stick with the old masters instead. Exactly the kind of thinking that Philadelphia Assembled pushes back against. Now, I have to say that this was a very radical exhibition for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s the first time they had ever done anything like this. This was especially ironic. This term he used Old Masters since during our process of narrative inquiry, we discovered that Philadelphia’s streets, many of which are named for the founding fathers and mothers, are named for slave owners and slave traders like Norris, Butler, Tew, Carpenter, Dickinson, Washington, Maurice, Penn, Gerard and Master.
The Master Narratives is a series of object based stories, which challenge the misrepresentation or the disappearance of black bodies and black histories. It challenges the historical misconceptions about the abolitionist North, the apotheosis of the funding fathers and the image of the lowly Negro and loyal slave. These misperceptions persist today, sometimes in very subtle ways, but they are still there. Now we were given… When I say, “We” I’m talking about the working group. We were given a very abstract description of the project and a vague…
That’s not quite the word I was using for. But a series of vague instructions about what we were going to do. But basically we were given this impossible task and that was to perform the city. So here we have this booklet now as a result of the exhibition, a civic stage where the city is performed. But when we first got those instructions, we thought, “How in the world do we perform the city? And what part of the city?” So we were told to do this through the lens of a set of urgencies. The urgencies our working group chose were mass incarceration and gentrification. We were to activate, amplify the acts of resistance and resilience in the city in the face of these issues.
There were 150 collaborators. Some of us born in Philadelphia like myself, some of us not. What was our common story? We were artists, activists, mothers. We came from every walk of life. It was truly the most diverse group of people who had ever worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. So how did we find our common story? The critics comments made me think of the story that Philadelphia tells itself about itself. The story we tell the world as well. People come from all over the world because Philadelphia is known as the birthplace of American democracy. The city of brotherly love and sisterly affection and the Philadelphia Museum of Art is viewed by some, as a Citadel on the Hill. A place where Euro centric ideals about art and culture are held in high esteem. But we envisioned the museum that would acknowledge the indigenous populations that preceded them, that would give equal space and equal voice to ex offenders, to all of the marginalised communities in Philadelphia.
And so I led a process that I call story mapping using narrative inquiry. Now narrative inquiry is a process of gathering information for the purpose of research through storytelling. And I call my process of story mapping, I call this unforgetting and reconnecting. It is a deep exploration, a deep inquiry, a deep reflection and deep discussion. We use maps, timelines, archival materials. We use oral history, folklore. First thing we needed to do was define our atmosphere. We were given the name of our atmosphere, reconstructions, with an S, the plural. What did that mean? So the first thing we did was investigate the historical era of reconstruction. And we went on field trips and one of the field trips we planned was to the Lest We Forget Slavery and Holocaust Museum. And then we were planning our next field trip.
We were going to visit the home of William Goldsby. William Goldsby is the chair of Reconstruction Inc., a transformative re-entry programme for ex offenders. And we were going to visit William’s house this particular weekend. The Friday before… Newspapers recall that weekend as the weekend of rage. The city of Philadelphia and in fact, the country was on edge. People were angry. People were hurt following a string of shootings of unarmed black men by police officers. I went to work that day. People at my job acted as if nothing had happened. So what could I do with all of this anger and this pent up rage? And then text messages started passing back and forth. I realised the rest of my group was feeling the same way. So we felt so fortunate that that was the weekend we chose to gather at William Goldsby’s house. First of all, his home is like a museum. It’s like part museum and part like your grandmother’s house.
And he opened his home and his heart to us. Gave us a place to heal. Gave us a place to hug and to talk and to find our hope. You see, we started to feel like hypocrites. How is it that we’re putting on this huge exhibition about these urgencies, mass incarceration, gentrification, and so many other issues, yet we were living these urgencies? Some of us were housing insecure. We had chronic illnesses. There was poverty. We had family members suffering from… Oh my goodness, okay. We had family members incarcerated. We were living these urgencies. And it was this process of story sharing that helped us that weekend at William Goldsby’s house find the hope and the strength and the resilience that we needed to go on. And we decided that what we had to do was acknowledge. Yes, we acknowledge the serious and the devastating nature of these urgencies.
But we also saw the beauty and the resilience and the hope in our communities. And that’s what we chose to focus on. We did not ignore either side, but we really focused on the hope and the resilience, so that when it was time to name our programmes, we named one of them… The one from gentrification was Blueprint For A Just Neighbourhood. The program’s about mass incarceration. We called them Freedom In A Carceral State, putting the community first and the hope first. Do I have the clicker up here? Sorry. Am I supposed to…
Bill Adair: Press the green arrow.
Denise Valentine: Green arrow. Okay. I don’t see a green arrow. Okay. I need some help, I’m sorry. Is this it?
Bill Adair: Yes.
Denise Valentine: Okay. All right. So I have to tell this story in one minute now. So the story about the silver dish is really a story about how we convinced, by telling a story, how we convinced the Philadelphia Museum of Art to put these historical objects in a contemporary art exhibition. And it’s because these objects linked the current situation to the historical roots of those issues. This is a female slave colour, the Norris silver dish and Carol Walker’s painting of a slave ship. The silver dish I found at the now defunct Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent. Etched in the rim of this dish is the story of a little slave girl who was found floating in the ocean, along with this silver dish after a massive earthquake in Port Royal, Jamaica in 1692. June 7th, 1692 Port Royal sank into the bay.
This little girl survived the earthquake. She was brought back to Philadelphia, along with the silver dish by Isaac Norris, a slave merchant. Now I’m out of time. I can’t finish my story. There is the story etched in the rim of the dish. I will tell you that my great-grandmother was born in Portland, Jamaica, and her grandmother raised her on Norris Street in Philadelphia. And what I’m trying to say, the personal is political. I’m going to close like this, with a song dedicated to her. “This long time we never see you, come make me hold your hand. This long time girl we never see you, come make we walk and talk. This long time girl we never see you, come make we wheel and turn. This long time [yam 00:27:15] we never see you. Come make me wheel and turn. Peel head John Crow. Sit upon the tree top. Pick off the blossom. Let me hold your hand. Let me hold your hand.