Catherine Powell 2016-09-26 12:31:47
How can archives increase their visibility? How do we share the unique value of our special collections when so many believe archives to be some dusty papers hidden in the stacks? Breaking down this tired perception requires thinking outside of the stacks—literally! To celebrate its thirtieth anniversary on May 2, 2016, the Labor Archives and Research Center at San Francisco State University commissioned an aerial dance troupe to perform on the façade of the campus library, featuring a soundscape drawn from its oral history collection. Entitled “Archives and Outcries: California’s Unconventional Women Tell Their Stories,” the site-specific dance produced by Flyaway Productions explored the important role women have played in fighting for the rights of working people and for gender equality in the workplace. Using stories found in interviews conducted with hotel workers, an administrator in the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau, and women working in non-traditional trades, composer Pamela Z created a beautiful tapestry of voices talking about the struggles and triumphs women have faced at work—defining and outlawing sexual harassment, breaking color lines in unions, and risking arrest to fight for adequate health care and a living wage. The troupe’s dancers brought the workers’ words to life in a stunning display of acrobatics and physical prowess. Suspended from the roof, they took flight across the front of the building, spinning and pirouetting to the voices of workers. The piece featured a series of suspended dresses, activated by the dancers and designed to embody the heart of everyday women whose courage has led to huge gains for all American women. It was a spectacular show, a visible show that stopped people in their tracks and brought the archives to the campus’s attention. Setting the Stage In order to create such a risk-taking event, we had to navigate our way through the concerns of a multitude of risk management, security, and facilities managers. The unusual nature of the dance performance raised many concerns, but through clear communication, inclusive in-person meetings, and the stellar safety record of the dance group, we were able to secure support at the highest levels of the university’s administration. As we solved the practical aspects of the performance, an excitement began to creep into the meetings as the different administrative entities embraced the innovative endeavor. Some of the people who were initially skeptical about the performance became our greatest advocates. Showtime On the day of the performance, the chairs placed for an audience quickly filled and students and faculty sat in small groups on the lawn to watch. A family spread out a blanket so that their children could lay back and take in the aerial drama. Teachers from many disciplines brought their whole classes. Observing the audience watch the performance, they showed the kind of fascination and engagement we had hoped for. “If you’re walking and you see people on the side of the library, it captures your attention,” said one student. “Even if you don’t know what it is, you’ll learn what it is.” The students responded with enthusiasm not only because they were witnessing a unique experience in a common location, but because the different elements of movement, sound, and content appealed to a learning style not often found in the classroom. In our experience, students learn best when they can be exposed to different modes of learning. By teaching labor history through music, dance, and dialogue, we were able to reach a wider audience with a multi-dimensional message. Building New Relationships Innovative programs and public events offer opportunities to connect with groups outside of an archives’ usual constituencies by building new relationships and introducing new audiences to your collections. Our partnership with the San Francisco State School of Theater and Dance evolved into the choreographer providing classes and guest lectures on the techniques of aerial dance and on incorporating social justice themes into dance. Women and gender studies and ethnic studies faculty promoted the performance in their classes while journalism and cinema students undertook film projects documenting the dance and the archives’ anniversary. The journalism project resulted in beautiful print and video news stories in the student paper. (View one video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwdgy6bdOjU.) Partnerships with artists are a particularly effective and creative means for archives to highlight their collections and reach new audiences. Flyaway Productions is an apparatus-based dance company that explores the range and power of female physicality and advances social issues in the public realm, fitting well with the mission of the Labor Archives and San Francisco State. We have had a long and fruitful collaboration with Flyaway that began several years ago, when the troupe created a dance about women bridge workers. The interviews of six tradeswomen conducted as part of the creative process for the dance were donated to the Labor Archives, and Flyaway performed an excerpt of the dance at one of our annual programs. We then commissioned Flyaway to create an aerial dance for the Archives’ twenty-fifth anniversary, an event that took place in downtown San Francisco and commemorated the city’s 1934 General Strike. Random onlookers joined labor leaders and rank-and-file union members as the dancers performed a piece that told about the deaths of workers that sparked the historic strike. The success of this event and the excitement it generated inspired us to plan for a performance to bring to campus. The Bay Area labor community is a major constituency of our archives, in addition to the university, and our public events are a way to engage this community. Collection development depends upon creating strong relationships with the community to facilitate the donation of records. Public programming is critical to building support with unions and labor leaders so they will entrust the Labor Archives with their collections and provide financial support for our operations. The lives and stories of working men and women continue to inform and inspire the labor movement and help to illustrate the relationship between labor and social justice through their complex evolution over the course of the twentieth century. Be Daring! Public programs manifest in a visible way why archival collections are important. And when an archives does something as daring and innovative as an aerial dance, it makes a lasting impression with constituencies and generates new relationships in the wider community. No one who saw this performance will ever see archives as only a dusty old pile of papers again. At the very least, they’ll know we dance to a different tune! Watch the full dance performance at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6FrwNpqOEc and learn more about the Labor Archives and Research Center at http://library.sfsu.edu/larc.
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