Posted by: Erin Bernard
How did the Philly History Truck begin and why?
I had the idea for History Truck in April of 2013. At the time I was working for the Painted Bride Art Center doing outreach, marketing and public relations work trying to find ways to bring new audiences into the space. I struggled to see how our shows were obviously relevant or affordable to communities in Philadelphia who are typically marginalized by museums– and the Bride does thoughtful, intersectional work, so I partly thought that if I found it hard to do outreach from the Bride, I needed to be on the ground, that a museum needed to be on the ground, moving to people as opposed to making people travel– and spend money– to get there. I also had recently studied Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum (1992) in which Wilson reconceptualized the Maryland Historical Society with an exhibition which interpreted black history through object juxtapositions. The way Wilson used conceptual thought processes and contemporary art to challenge museum production made me think I could use a mobile museum to challenge the way history museums make curatorial choices. And of course, we live in a city of food trucks… But it was just an idea at first, and I had no clue it would come to fruition nearly so quickly, but I shared the idea around with a number of neighborhood organizations in North Philadelphia (I wanted to work in North Philly first because I was a student at Temple University at the time, and I felt civically responsible to listen to North Philadelphia first). East Kensington Neighbors Association was very energetic about the project, especially their President at the time, Jeff Carpineta, who told me that we could make the project happen using his truck– I just had to start there. In East Kensington, my listening led to an exhibition about postindustrial textile mill fires, which is incredibly immediate here because these fires happen on a regular basis, but this issue is nationwide as we have witnessed as we mourn the lives lost in the Ghostship fire in Oakland. In North Philadelphia close to Temple, the Truck did an exhibition on university expansion and community building. In Chinatown North-Callowhill, we explored displacement and home around the Vine Street Expressway, which took a vested interest in serving the unhoused population in the area. Now, the project has its own truck and is working in Fairhill on the ideas of resilience and sanctuary– and also on the WIC Work/Shop! It has been an amazing ride.
What have you taken away from the Philly History Truck experience and how has it informed your current project, the WIC Workshop?
One of the key changes in the way I am doing work with the WIC Work/Shop has to do with project production. In the past, we used oral history interviews to inspire curatorial questions, but I or other public historians or artists or even children trained in public history through the project did these interviews. Community members did not devise the questions or take ownership of that portion of the project. Through the WIC Work/Shop, I am training a group of women who were once on WIC or are currently on WIC to learn how to do public history and help develop public programming and the exhibition itself. I also am paying them $50 an hour with childcare on site whenever needed. I believe these are the politics that all community-rooted public history and social practice projects should be moving to instigate– if we are working with people who are marginalized and we expect them to share with us and work on our projects, we need to meet their needs to. Having the courage to be honest about what exchange looks like in community curating has been incredibly important to me.
Image: Philadelphia History Truck, courtesy of Temple University’s Center for Public History
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