The Somerville Museum’s Community Curatorial Program encourages members of the local community who have no previous exhibit experience to become active participants in the Museum’s exhibition program by collaborating with Director of Exhibitions Michael O’Connell in the development of Museum exhibits. Collaborators from the community originate, develop, curate, design and build exhibitions at the Somerville Museum under the watchful eye of museum staff and with the aid of professional service providers such as graphic designers, picture framers, printers, and sign makers with whom the Museum maintains a close association. Community curators may be ordinary Somerville residents and neighbors, but have also included visual artists, librarians, city administrators, undergraduate students and professors in the history and anthropology departments of local colleges and universities, and public school teachers and their classes from the Somerville High School history and art departments.
Exhibitions carried out under the auspices of the Somerville Museum’s Community Curatorial Program have appeared on the annual Boston Globe “Best of Visual Arts” list of local exhibitions and are regularly featured among recommendations of the “Eight Days a Week” column of the weekly Boston Phoenix. Publications associated with the exhibits have won regional non-fiction book awards and garnered national attention in academic journals and periodical publications.
In recognition of her project The Vietnam Experience, carried out with her 11th grade American history class at the Somerville Museum in 2005, high school teacher Alicia Kersten was named 2006 Gilder Lehrman Massachusetts History Teacher of the Year.
For over a decade, the Community Curatorial Program has activated the Somerville Museum’s exhibition environment by engaging the Museum’s audience in an ongoing participatory project. Rather than revisiting the well worn stories of Somerville’s past, the Somerville Museum’s partners from the community have unfailingly delivered fresh perspectives that have a special relevance for our contemporary audience, effectively demonstrating that although the past is finished, history is something that we must continually reinvent in relation to an ever changing present.
In an early exhibit that became a model for later Museum exhibitions that examine Somerville history using tools from the dual disciplines of historical scholarship and the visual arts, guest curator and artist Nancy Natale documented from primary sources the destruction of the Miller's River during Somerville’s industrial revolution. Looking for a way to provide a contemporary perspective on the documentary evidence which she had amassed for the exhibit, which she called Digging Up a Buried River (1994), Natale invited artists whose present day studios lie near the banks of the vanished tributary to produce original artworks that related visually to this tale of ecological tragedy.
Lifting the Veil (1997), told the story of the 1834 burning of Somerville’s Ursuline Convent with documents and objects that conveyed particulars of the event as well as the anti-Irish sentiment that lay behind it. In an adjoining gallery returning curator Nancy Natale commissioned visual art installations that addressed today’s cultural stereotypes. The SOMERVILLE JOURNAL called Lifting the Veil’s message “compelling and urgent.” BOSTON GLOBE art critic Christine Temin summed up, “This is a show that the curators and directors of the bigger museums around town –which is all the rest of them –would do well to check out. . . . a model of what a museum exhibition can be.” The exhibition was named one of 1997's Ten Best Visual Arts by the BOSTON GLOBE.
In the exhibition catalogue essay titled “Making Connections,” Lifting the Veil visiting scholar Nancy Lusignan Schultz, Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Salem State College, described the manner in which the production of this exhibition created ties among diverse groups within the community as many individuals came together to tell a single story. Fire and Roses, Dr. Schultz’ account of the burning of the convent, was published subsequent to the exhibition, winning the Massachusetts Book Award Honors in Non-Fiction as well as the New England American Studies Lois Rudnick Prize.
Sleuthing by three City of Somerville librarians-turned-curators resulted in the recovery of a cache of original glass negatives produced by Victorian-era Somerville photographer Frederic Stone. The Museum’s exhibition of this rediscovered body of work, titled In Pleasant Company (1998), represented family life in 19th century Somerville through the prism of Frederick Stone’s lens and Stone family artifacts.
Discovering a Neighborhood: Malvern Avenue Past and Present (2000), came about when a visual artist’s paintings of front stoops and backyards displayed during a block party led neighbors to investigate how their streets were settled by black Pullman porters, its past as a Civil War training camp, and the surprising connections between the two.
Lost Theatres of Somerville: A Visual and Oral History of Somerville’s Picture Palaces (2003-2004) invited visitors to explore the concepts of public space and community in an American city through an examination of 14 motion picture theatres that operated in Somerville, Massachusetts, throughout the 20th century. Curator and Project Director Dr. David Guss of Tufts University told the story of the 14 theatre sites through oral history, artifacts, memorabilia, and period photographs. Programming included a public lecture series presented by prominent film historians and a special event featuring an appearance by Hollywood screen idol Frances Dee for the screening of her 1943 classic I Walked with A Zombie. By encouraging the participation of audience in the creation of the various components of the project, Lost Theatres itself became an exemplar of the urban community building that was its major theme. Participants included over 80 Somerville seniors who were subjects of the oral history interviews, approximately 20 high school and college aged Somerville residents as oral historians, the many relatives and descendants of Somerville’s original theatre managers and proprietors, present day owners of theatre sites, and many volunteers from the Somerville arts community who prepared the galleries for the exhibition. Seven photographers were commissioned to bring the story of the theatres into the present day with images of the theatre sites as they appear in modern Somerville. The exhibition’s art component was further augmented by four short videos and an installation of theatre sounds.
Dr. Guss’ narrative of the exhibition, “Lost Theatres of Somerville,” won the Theatre Historical Society’s 2005 Jeffrey Weiss Award and was published as the First Quarter, 2006, issue of the society’s journal Marquee.
In 2006, Tufts University undergraduate Sebastian Chaskel developed research that he had begun in an anthropology class into an exhibition titled From Yucuaiquin to Somerville, which documented how a group of Salvadoran immigrants have transposed native rituals and traditions to their new home in Somerville. In the course of developing the material for the exhibition, Chaskel, a native Spanish speaker, traveled to El Salvador in order to view the traditional festival of St. Francis and El Baile de los Negritos in its original setting in the mountain village of Yucuaiquin.
As a result of the attention that was focused onSomerville’s growing Salvadoran community by this
exhibition, in 2007 Yucuaiquin became a sister
city of Somerville.
Left: Tufts University undergraduate and exhibit curator Sebastian Chaskel installing From Yucuaiquin to Somerville in the Somerville Museum. Right: El Baile de los Negritos as performed by members of Somerville’s Salvadoran community before audience members during the opening reception.