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Posts from the ‘Music’ Category

An Interview with Curator and American Music Specialist Levon Williams

Levon Williams will return to Indiana University in the fall of 2016 to pursue a MA degree in Non-Profit Management in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He holds a BA in Interpersonal Communications from Purdue University and studied Library and Information Science at IU. He has previously worked as Curator of Collections and Registrar at the STAX Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis and as Curator of the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville.

Jason Jackson (JJ): Thank you Levon for taking time for this interview. You are looking ahead to your new graduate program, but I am sure that you have also been reflecting on your recent years working as a curator and interpreter of American musical culture. What have been some highlights of your work as a museum professional so far?

Levon Williams (LW):  Well there have been many, but here are two that really standout. During my time at the Stax Museum, I had the opportunity to work collaboratively with the non-profit organization Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO). Facing History and Ourselves’ work focuses on empowering young people to be “upstanders” (as opposed to bystanders) by strengthening their capacity for empathy and understanding. Our goal was to create an educational curriculum for middle school and high school aged students centered around the development and music of Stax Records as well as the history of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

The opportunity to use the history of Stax Records as a lens through which to explore broader concepts such as Civil Rights history in this manner spoke directly to both my professional and personal goals. Using music as an entry point, we were able to help students frame their own history and related it directly to the lives they live everyday. FHAO were absolutely wonderful to work with on this project and I am very proud of the result. This curriculum includes text, images, as well as several audio/visual elements. It can be viewed here: Sounds of Change.

A second major highlight, was the opportunity to work collaboratively with the Curatorial Team at the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) to create what will become the interpretive program for the museums galleries. The NMAAM set open in Nashville, TN in 2018 will house 5 main galleries, a changing gallery and a large area for shared visitor experiences called Rivers of Rhythm. It is shaping up to be something that will be extremely engaging for visitors from various interests and walks of life.

It is not often that one has the opportunity to have input on how a story of this magnitude (the history of American music) will be told on this scale (roughly 1600 sq ft.)  Learning about the process of undertaking such a task, as well as working collaboratively to contribute to how the history and music will be contextualized in the story the museum will tell has definitely been another professional highlight.

JJ: Those are incredible experiences. In the case of the FHAO project, an exciting museum effort is closely aligned with positive social change. In the NMAAM, the creation of a new museum is itself a huge change, one that will surely create an important platform for doing good on a national level. How did your previous work in the field and your studies at Purdue and Indiana prepare you to contribute to those endeavors?

LW: I’d definitely suggest that in a way all of your previous experiences contribute to how you approach any given project in one way or another. However, specifically in regards to my undergraduate and graduate experiences, I would lean heavily on my graduate experience having a significantly strong impact.

Over my two years at Indiana University, I worked, volunteered and/or interned at Wells Library, Monroe County Public Library, IU GLBT Library, Kinsey Library and Special Collections, Archives of African American Music and Culture, Archives of Traditional Music, Mathers Museum of World Cultures and the Monroe County History Center. My understanding of how libraries, archives and museums worked increased exponentially. My association with these different organizations offered a wealth of opportunity to gain experience in all three disciplines, and was immeasurable in terms of exposing me to the inner workings of different organizations. I’d definitely say it did much to prepare me for my first steps into professional life. The opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of departments were set up, how workflows were managed as well as the seemingly inescapable politics of work were just a peak into what what I would encounter in the field, but I am beyond grateful for those opportunities.

I was also able to utilize these positions as a platform to build a strong professional network. I established relationships with several people I would come to call mentors. It has been tremendously helpful to be able to call on them during my time in the field. I am eternally grateful to all of them for the support they’ve offered over the years. Their collective impact on my career path cannot be understated.

JJ: I like how you stress the ways that skills development and networking are both part of the practicum/internship/volunteering experience. I also note that you treated libraries, archives, and museums as a diverse but unified sector—what, with the inclusion of galleries, we sometimes call the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) fields. You have finished up your work at NMAAM and are soon to return to IU as a student. What will you be studying and what are your goals for your program?

This fall I am returning to IU to pursue a Master of Public Affairs degree in the of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. My focus will be Nonprofit Management. After spending close to 5 years in the field I felt this area might be one where I could make an impact of significance. I am a strong believer in the importance of a strong and supportive organizational culture. I feel that strong support and sustained investment (financial and otherwise) in creating and empowering strong leaders is especially pronounced in the Nonprofit sphere as organizations are often understaffed and may not have salaries that reflect the impact of the work they do. I feel an environment that is energizing and offers the potential for professional and personal growth goes a long way to keep staff passionate about the mission they serve.

On a personal note, my hope is to broaden my Administrative skill set and to return to the field with a strong foundation in best practices for operating healthy Nonprofit organizations as well as some practical experience as well. The SPEA Nonprofit Management program stands to significantly deepen my understanding of many of the Administrative elements of leadership in Nonprofit organization such as budgets and philanthropy in general. I strongly believe a better understanding of how these concepts all work together will prove invaluable as I continue my career. The program also offers a Capstone project that I am very excited about, as it will afford me the opportunity to apply the concepts I will be learning in class to real world scenarios. I look forward to possibly returning to museums or working with other organizations in the Nonprofit sphere once I have completed my degree.

JJ: The leadership needs that you’ve identified for the non-profit sector are certainly pressing. I am excited for you that you have this new opportunity to return to SPEA and secure this additional training. I look forward to keeping up with your work, both in the nonprofit management program and throughout your career. Thank you for sharing your experiences with me. Good luck with your new round of studies.

An Interview with Dorothy J. Berry, Metadata Specialist and Project Manager for Umbra, an Initiative of the Givens Collection of African American Literature, University of Minnesota Libraries

While a graduate student at Indiana University, Dorothy J. Berry concurrently earned an MA degree in ethnomusicology from the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology and a MLS degree from the Department of Information and Library Science. She undertook several projects at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, including work co-curating the 2014 exhibition Ojibwe Public Art, Ostrom Private Lives. Her masters research focused on African American musical theater in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and she has broad interests in the curation and presentation of historical and cultural materials. She has just begun work as Metadata Specialist and Project Manager for Umbra, “a free digital platform and widget that brings together content documenting African American history and culture.” The Umbra project is an initiative of the University of Minnesota Libraries.

Jason Jackson (JJ): Its great to catchup with you Dorothy! Congratulations on your new post at Minnesota. As you know, I am a huge fan of the work being done at the University of Minnesota Libraries, thus I am really eager to catchup with you and your efforts there. Umbra sounds very ambitious in terms of its technical work, its institutional partnerships, and its culture-changing goals. What is it all about and how are you beginning to contribute?

Dorothy Berry (DB): Umbra is ambitious in scope, indeed! In clear technical jargon, Umbra is an African American digital archives aggregate. It will provide an accessible interface for researchers at various experience levels to explore African American archival materials from across a wide variety of repositories, from huge institutions like the Smithsonian to smaller, but still vital cultural heritage sites like the Jacob Fontaine Religious Museum. Umbra works as a gathering place for African American collections, placing far flung digitized holdings within the broader context of African American history.

Up until now, Umbra has primarily worked with its over 500 contributing institutions to get their already digitized holdings accessible through the site. My position as Metadata Specialist and Project Manager is part of a Council on Library and Information Resources funded grant to digitize over half a million holdings from over 70 collections across the University of Minnesota Libraries system. U of M library staff and faculty have already gone through their wealth of collections looking for hidden records related to African American history—collections which on their face may not be directly related to Black history but have turned out to have breadcrumb trails leading to newly contextualized rich resources. At this point, we are in the digitization and metadata augmentation stage. There is a fantastic cadre of student workers doing large batch scanning and quality control. My position involves supervising their work, as well as using my research background in African American history to add to the metadata for these recontextualized items, making them more easily findable to future scholars studying Black history both in Umbra and in U of M’s Online Finding Aids and UMedia. Not to mention, of course, documenting the process along the way so that other major institutions can potentially implement a similar hidden holdings digitization plan for marginalized histories within their own collections.

In spite, or perhaps because, of the broad scope of the project Umbra has very clear pathways from both the front and back ends. My fellow Umbra team members with more forward facing positions are really masterful at organizing with stakeholders from all levels of participation and creating an aesthetically engaging and community engaged portal, and this massive addition from the University of Minnesota Libraries will go even further in making Umbra a research destination.

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Dorothy J. Berry shares historic film photographs with Danny Glover, star of stage and screen.

JJ: That sounds awesome. I look forward to using it in my own work and teaching! In my experiences visiting there and talking with librarians and campus leaders, I came to see that Minnesota has long been a leader in special collections development and has advocated an approach to access that is mindful of broad and diverse community needs. It seems that your work there is a part and parcel to a wider embrace of open access values and practices. There is also the context of the Big Ten Academic Alliance—what we until recently called the Committee on Institutional Cooperation or CIC. Minnesota is part of a community of universities and libraries committed to working on such things in an innovative way. Indiana University is part of that environment too. How have your graduate studies and the hands-on work that you did at IU prepared you for the work that you are now doing?

DB: I think the wealth of hand’s on opportunities available at Indiana University are what have most prepared me for professional life. While a graduate student I had a two year assistantship at the Archives of African American Music and Culture, one year at the Black Film Center/Archive, a year’s practicum at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, and a semester practicum in the Film Archive. Librarianship in particular is a field that expects its emerging professionals to already have a wealth of experiences before getting that first full time job—I don’t believe I’ve ever really seen a job listing that didn’t ask for at least two years experience, unless it was a specific “recent graduates” oriented position (few and far between!). Having the opportunity to work at a variety of cultural heritage repositories in both front and back of house positions, exhibitions and cataloging, really set me up to have a set of skills and experiences that demonstrate competency, even from a very recent graduate.

On the academic side, I think the pursuit of a dual masters is really key for reaching new levels of accomplishment in archives and museums, especially when it comes to dealing with marginalized people’s collections. My job involves adding value to pre-existing metadata—something that requires technical archival skills, but also a focused research background. Every archivist I’ve known has great research abilities and can quickly become an expert in the collection they’re currently dealing with, but I think specific experience with rigorous research in a specific area leads to richer and more diverse finding aids and exhibits. Studying ethnomusicology was particularly of use as it established a research praxis that values discrete cultural intent, which is useful when working with marginalized people’s collections, but also with historical collections as well. My focus has always been on historical ethnomusicology, and I’m a proponent of the idea of research-based historic ethnography. I believe that work in understanding historic lived experiences from the perspective of the day is integral in fairly representing archival collections, which is increasingly important in the more widely accessible world of digital archives.

JJ: That is a great expression of the value of both hands-on work and interdisciplinary or multi-disciplinary academic training. You also stress something that I also care about, the continued importance of historical work in ethnographic fields that have often become very present-centered. In your concern for the historical experiences of marginalized groups, I hear you rightly stressing the need to understand and represent such peoples in their own historical contexts. This is part of the Umbra mission, as I read it. But this initiative clearly is also doing important social or political work in the present. Umbra’s name reminds us, for instance, of “a renegade group of Black writers and poets who helped create the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s.” I cannot stop thinking about all that is happening right now in our tragic, shared American present. What are some of the roles that you emphasize when you think about the work of the archivist and curator of African American cultural materials in the present?

DB: What’s most important to me as an African American archivist/Archivist of African American materials is to use the past to inform the present that Black history has always been filled with a gradient of experiences, emotions, activism, and suffering. Because African American history is taught at a very surface level, usually beginning vaguely before the Civil War, people of all colors often come away with a historical timeline along the lines of “Antebellum slaves-Civil War-Maybe Harlem Renaissance-Civil Rights Movement-People had Afros-Hip Hop in the 90s.” Archivists have the ability to show materials from the hands of African Americans and people of African descent from the earliest periods of North American colonization, showing not only that Black people have always been here, but that those Black people were not tropes pushing forward a linear narrative of American history. Primary documents have the ability to humanize in a way that even the best written non-fiction book cannot, and Archivists are the gatekeepers for this information.

I think we are in a time of extreme hunger for this sort of history, in the face of racism that says Black life is one-note and useless. Letters, publications, notes, films, photos—they force people to see that Black life has always been an integral sinew in the American corpus, and that Black people are human. That phrase “that Black people are human,” should be trite but we live in a segmented society that has long seemed to view African Americans as symbols, as stand-ins for cultural and social issues. Fleshing out human experience is an incredibly important role for all cultural heritage workers, but I think archivists have a really unique ability to share things that can completely turn a worldview on it’s head.

I love African American musical theater of the turn of the 20th century, and people usually get a chuckle out of how obscure that topic sounds. At the end of the day though, it was not an obscure topic at the time—we are talking about celebrities amongst Blacks and Whites, who staged financially and culturally successful performances and were well-known enough to have invitations for private performances from the Rothschilds and the British Royal Family. When the average person thinks of turn of the century Black life, they might think share-croppers, Great Migration, Jim Crow. Those are all realities, but so are popular entertainers and more frivolous things—because Black life has always been diverse and complex (something always assumed of White American populations, but rarely of Black ones).

At the same time, I think it’s important for people who work in historical contexts to not get so comfortable in the past that they ignore the present. When I am speaking on archival objects from the past, I do so to inform and complicate understandings of the present. One of the best recent examples of addressing contemporary understandings while exploring a historical document can be seen in Musical Passage: A Voyage to 1688 Jamaica. This project explores some of the earliest transcriptions of African diasporic music in the Americas using two pages from a 17th century book called Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica. Decisions like referring to the planter class as “…people involved in colonizing Jamaica and enslaving Africans in pursuit of profit” might seem trivial, but is a powerful step in discussing archival history without traditional deference to a presumed white readership.

The other role I find incredibly important, personally, is that of someone who is a vocal trained expert who is not easily cowed. This is a role of personal importance because I do not think it is necessarily required of every archivist of color or person working with marginalized people’s collections, but it is one that I try to fulfill as someone with the disposition and positionality to feel comfortable doing so. I have found that many White scholars in a variety of fields assume that people of color who work with materials from their own ethnic/racial/cultural groups are not true scholars—that their expertise comes solely from lived experience and personal opinion. Lived experiences and personal opinions are not without value, of course, but it is important for me to stop those fellow scholars and say “Oh, I hear that you are devaluing my expertise, but we are actually going to talk about this right now.”

I was recently talking to two very intelligent medievalists and said in passing that “race is made up.” They both know me as someone with multiple degrees and professional experience working with archival materials, but one of them immediately scoffed and brought up the dreaded specter of “internet social justice warriors.” I could tell this was something I was supposed to let slide, but instead began a discussion on the undefined “white person” of the 1790 Naturalization Act and the various court-cases and social movements that followed in attempts to create meaning for “white person.” This type of intellectual and emotional labor is, in brief, a pain. I personally find it remarkably important, however, to use my role as a researcher and archivist to plant Black history firmly in the minds of fellow scholars who might, consciously or not, attempt to ignore the historical and archival record solely because they don’t understand or like the 21st century discourse around race.

JJ: Given that talking such issues through over and over again for the larger social good is, as you note, a pain—even as it is also remarkably important—I am very thankful that you were willing to speak to them so eloquently here in the context of your work. In further shaping your understandings of them and in the professional practice that you pursue around them, did you find mentors and allies here at IU during your studies? My hopeful self hopes so, but my worried self worries “not-so-much.”

DB: I don’t know that I’d say I found mentors but that is mainly because my personality doesn’t really seek out that sort of individual one-on-one relationship, for better or for worse. I found many, many people who provided intellectual, professional, and sometimes even emotional support, however. Within the department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Fernando Orejuela has always been a great champion and someone with whom I could discus navigating the racial and social problematics of academic life. My time working at the Mathers was fairly instrumental as well, because I had the opportunity to talk with people working with collections, exhibitions, curation. I found everyone there very supportive of professional intentions/potential and was given a lot of opportunity to discus processes and learn. In the other degree side, I spent a lot of time working with Andy Uhrich and Brian Graney, of the University Film Archives and Black Film Center/Archives respectively. They were very much super-allies of the Dorothy-cause, providing again that combination of education and professional freedom that I think is really valuable for graduate students. Graduate students need to learn huge amounts, obviously, but without hands-on projects the job market outside of academia doesn’t really care how many papers you’ve read. There are other professors, Judah Cohen in the Jacobs School [of Music], Terri Francis in the Media School, who really encouraged and challenged me intellectually.

I think there are definitely people at IU who presented serious problems for me, but that is to be expected in life! It is an effort to find and pursue the people that can add to your experiences, but for me it was certainly worth it.

JJ: I am obviously glad that the MMWC provided some of the useful opportunities that you drew upon and took advantage of. I am also glad that you took the Curatorship course and then followed up with hands-on projects at the museum. Engaging a diversity of people and organizations seems to be one key lesson that I read out of your experience. I know that the museum and I benefit from the diversity of students and other stakeholders with whom we engage.

In your new role, you are encountering many different collecting organizations, collections, and collection items. Is there one—at any of these levels—that has really struck a chord with you and that you would like to narrate? (This is the “favorite object” question reworked in an archival context, of course.)

DB: I’m so fresh into the position I haven’t had too much to explore, but in my first week I came across some really interesting holdings in the Social Welfare History Collection. I was pulling files and enriching metadata from a large collection called the Verne Weed Collection for Progressive Social Work, that holds the papers for a variety of activist social workers. That collection contains the Jack Kamaiko Papers, and a subsection of those papers were marked as relevant. The files all had titles along the lines of “USS New Orleans Segregation,” so I originally thought, “Hmm maybe this is someone who was fighting against segregation in the Navy? Maybe a lawyer, maybe someone who was discriminated against themselves?” When I looked through the first file, however, it was all correspondences dealing the the purchase of the Senator Hotel in New Orleans. I had no idea what that could possibly have to do with anything. I tried Googling, and came up with maybe two relevant results that all hinted at the real story.

In the 1940s, the United Seamen’s Service, a non-profit that works for the welfare of seafarers by providing services and local information, attempted to purchase the Senator Hotel to provide recreation and temporary housing for both African American and White seamen. Though the housing would be separated into two segregated wings, with separate entrances, local forces in the French Quarter railed against the close proximity. Jack Kamaiko, who would later go on to become a well respected professor at Hunter College’s School of Social Work, was employed by the United Seamen’s Service and kept letters, telegrams, and ephemera detailing the eventually unsuccessful purchase. These kinds of materials are exciting because while they are accessible at this point to scholars who know where to look, once they are digitized and added to Umbra Search they will be easily discoverable for anyone simply searching for “Segregation in New Orleans.” That kind of fleshing out of the historical record, showing the ongoing fights for fair treatment, provide the “vindicating evidence” that Arturo Schomburg described as his intellectual pursuit. Evidence that Black history is now and has always been, American history.

JJ: That’s an interesting collection and a great point to close on. Thank you so much for sharing your work with me.

The Woody Guthrie Center Seeks Executive Director, Educator

The emergent Woodie Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma (one of my favorite places) is seeking to fill two key positions: (1) Executive Director/Chief Curator and (2) Educator and Public Programs Manager. These are great opportunities in an exciting new venture to be built around the Woody Guthrie Archives . Find out about both the Director and Educator jobs on the Oklahoma Museum Association website.

Coconut Rattles in Florida and Oklahoma

The diversity of materials used by Native peoples in the Americas to make hand rattles is pretty staggering. Among the farming peoples of the Southwest, Plains, Northeast and Southeast, gourds are one important material used for this purpose. Having the same basic form as gourd rattles, but unique to some Southeastern Indian peoples, are rattles, such as this Florida Seminole example, made from coconuts. William C. Sturtevant provided the coconut used here to Jack Motlow, from whom he commissioned it for $2.00 in 1951. This Florida Seminole example is made exactly like those used among the Southeastern peoples in Oklahoma, including among the Yuchi. (I commissioned Yuchi examples for the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa during the later 1990s.) Such rattles are called “gourds” in English in Oklahoma and are particularly suited to the outdoor dances of the region. Such rattles are loud and thus sound great when used, as they most often are, outside, in open spaces. (The holes drilled in the coconut amplify the rattle’s sound.)

This example is #301 in the William C. Sturtevant Collection, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

(The Seminole Tribune has published biographical profiles of two of Jack and Lena Motlow’s daughters. These profiles are of Louise Motlow and Mary Motlow Sanchez and are online.)

Khaira Arby Rocks

Just got back from the Khaira Arby concert here in Colorado Springs. The students in my Introduction to Folklife course went with me. It was awesome. It was great in an everyday sense and also in a “great to go along with my course” sense.  She is awesome, has a great band, and is really fun to watch and to listen to.  Because of rain earlier today the concert had to move inside (it was going to be on the lawn on campus here) but the hall was comfortable and it worked out and sounded great.  I am not an expert in the music of Mali (or anyplace), but I like Ali Farka Touré’s music and I guess that is a start. Khaira Arby and her band are in the same basic territory. The main difference is that she and her band rock more and her voice is an amazing, expressive instrument. Her band is extremely talented and they came off as a very well rehearsed unit. Really great.

The concert was a perfect compliment to a film that I showed in my class.  It is a documentary on the adobe architecture of Mali called Heavenly Mud. I love to teach vernacular architecture with this film but one of its fringe benefits is that it has great music in its soundtrack. Khaira Arby is from the region near Timbuktu and her music is recognizably akin to the music in the film (which shows in detail the remarkable architecture of both Timbuktu and the equally amazing city of Djenné) This provided a point of contact between the class and the concert. On top of that, yesterday and today our focus has been music. What could be better?

Her MySpace page suggests that this was her last concert in the U.S. Her next stop is the U.K. for three shows, then two in Belgium, then one in Poland (at the Africa Museum!). Hopefully some of my friends and readers will have a chance to see her. She and her band would be great at the Lotus Festival in Bloomington one of these years.

Someone needs to make a English wikipedia page for her!

Here is a music video that shows her singing and the architecture around Timbuktu.

Here is NPR coverage of Khaira Arby. http://www.npr.org/artists/134000718/khaira-arby

It is funny to see online that she is represented on her tour by Rock Paper Scissors, the world music agency headquartered in Bloomington. Maybe the bodes well for a Lotus visit?

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