28 June 2008

Johnstown, PA - Cambria City, represent!

Confidential to Christina -- I swear I was going to do a post about this!

I've been doing things Rusyn for quite a long time, mostly as part of an organized group doing some public program to promote things Rusyn -- but this post shows a progression of Rusyn culture in America. Why? Because this event of Rusyns was developed organically, thematically and anarchistically. A bunch of Rusyns got together to do something highly related to being Rusyn, almost spontaneously though also very planned. It was a great time, and something that I hope happens elsewhere, because it is culture-building.

The day started with visits to the main places of the American Carpatho-Russian Greek Catholic Orthodox Church -- we went to liturgy, to the chancery, to the seminary. After that, a great lunch at a Johnstown restaurant, and finally what was for me the main attraction -- the Heritage Discovery Center.

It's relatively new, and so the museology is new. Like at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, you are given a person to follow through the museum -- I think they had 8 or 10 people to choose from in Johnstown. I was a young female immigrant from Calabria who came to America to get married -- but being the museum geek that I am, I also waited around every kiosk where you scan your card so that I could see what the other ones were like also. They definitely represent a cross-section of the diverse groups who came to Johnstown.

We had a rather lengthy introduction at the ticket desk, which contextualized the mass immigration to the US between 1870-1920ish as the result of mass depopulation after the Civil War -- maybe that's one reason, but I think that the whole situation is much more nuanced than just that. Then, the only negative sort of thing that happened there: at the end of his talk, the introducer mentioned that at the end, we would be asked at a kiosk "Should we allow more immigrants into the United States?" and that we should answer yes, because then we would find out what really happened to the person we had gone with through the museum. I don't know how often this guy works, and I was happy to see that people overwhelmingly said yes, but it wasn't really good of him to give us that information and I definitely think the results are skewed, as much as I'd like to think that visiting the Heritage Discovery Center helps people to remember that they are descendants of (often illiterate, non Anglophone) immigrants so that they change their stance on people who immigrate to the US today.

The visit is a well-organized forced-path experiential-learning extravaganza:
(click to enlarge photos)

First, you arrive at Ellis Island, where the train ticket agent calls you a unwashed idiot or something xenophobic, and then you sit in the train station in Johnstown watching trains arrive and people meet their friends and relatives who have just arrived in America (above).

At various points throughout the exhibition, you can listen to actors reading first-hand accounts of immigration narratives. I tend to have a problem with faux accents in museum settings -- this is a trick also used at another great museum about immigration, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum -- I don't think that the device really helps explain the situation, and it comes off as cheesy, crude and gimmicky. Here though, I really liked this diorama/sound bank. It looked great and served its purpose really well -- you can see how well designed the HDC is.

The interactives were fun for everyone. One was about separating coal from rocks on a moving conveyor belt, which was also really fun and showed how labor-intensive industry was at that time. They also really make it clear that they (established WASP boss people) felt that these dangerous jobs were unskilled labor, which I think is far from the truth.

Personally, I would have loved to have learned more about labor organizing, but I also know that a lot of immigrants, especially from eastern Europe, were not interested in being organized. It's really enough of a topic for a stand-alone exhibit. Again, amazing design with a standard style that just really worked throughout the galleries.

Not content to see just one museum in Johnstown, we also went over to the Johnstown Flood Museum.

Mostly I hissed at the arrogance of the wealthy who caused the flood, and wished that Alexander Berkman had succeeded. The museum is small, but also really well done, and brings the situation to the present with a photo gallery of contemporary Johnstown -- how far things have come... Pennsylvanians really get off on lighted 3D map displays in museums (cf. Gettysburg), but they're so cool because they really are helpful and it's nice to not be looking at some computer-generated thing.

Our day ended with a trip up and down the world's steepest inclined plane that can also hold 3 cars:
We got drinks at the top. / It was vertigo-inducing.

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