Envisioning an Interactive Personalized Heritage Center

Where two or more can gather...

About a year ago, Giants of the Earth Heritage Center purchased the Historic Ballard House for use as the Heritage Center. The renovation of the Ballard House into the Heritage Center took part in several phases. Phase 1 involved primarily preparing the main room for the visit of the internationally known painter, Sigmund Aarseth. The painter arrived on October 12, 2010. He painted numerous large murals on the walls of the main room. The community rallied behind the effort with large donations.

Recently, the Northwest room was turned into a gift shop, containing both Spring Grove items and Norwegian-American items similar to those found in the Vesterheim Norwegian American museum gift shop. A room for videotaping oral history stories has been set up in the room south of Giants Hall. Genealogy research, including advanced genetic genealogy reasearch is currently available during scheduled hours M-F. The Honored Immigrants Hall is gorgeous, and is the perfect place for gatherings such as family reunions, where our genealogical services will be right there so people can find out how everyone is related. Further, groups of people at the family reunion can take 15 minutes to have their treasured family stories recorded by our video specialists, so that these stories can be preserved and shared for future generations of your family.

Mimickery is for unimaginative technicians–Artists are Entrepeneurs by definition

In the rush to set up our Heritage Center, there is a lot of inertia to mimick what has been done elsewhere. This seems to arise out of confusion about the difference between technicians and technology. Everyone likes to think of themselves as artists and not as technicians. If we are not aware of the etymological roots of artists and technicians, we may mistakenly refer to all people who work with technology as technicians. Because of this there is some resistance to using highly interactive technology that would put monitors and touchscreens on the walls. But etymologically, an artist is one who poetically creates something new, especially as a pioneer in new mediums. A technician, by contrast, is one who mimicks what has already been done, without ever utilizing his paradigm-smashing imagination. Thus, one who entrepeneurs is actually a true artist, even if he or she uses technology to entrepeneur. One who imitates, even if he uses paint, clay, or some other medium that was once used by an artist, is a mere technician. Another objection might be that technology is intimidating. This need not be the case, if we are willing to work to make the visitor’s interface completely user friendly and if we have someone ready at all time to assist older individuals who might not know how to use a mouse or a touchscreen.

A crucial junction

History has proven that inertia is the stewardship principle of those who miss opportunities. We are at a crucial junction which requires that we set aside time from our frenzied activities for reflection. The extent to which we seize unique opportunities presented by the latest computer technology will make all the difference when people ask themselves 10 years from now whether or not our center kept “in touch” with people and empowered our local and online communities to be poets and create something truly new. Do we want our open community center to revert into another cluttered “musaleum”, complete with kitschy gift shop? Do we want to fill up our welcoming open space with items designed to advance a particular historicist narrative? Or do we want to make it an interactive center that puts each member in the driver’s seat? By putting people in the driver’s seat rather than pretending to be some objective historical intercessor, we can facilitate their realization that–although no one else will live their lives, love their families, or leave their legacies for them–what they do, or don’t do, profoundly effects the quality of life of others for generations.

Lest the watchman waketh but in vain

We want to be true to our pioneering ancestors, whose principled and determined committment to the future of their children moved them to break new ground and to continually ask themselves if they were spending the resources entrusted to them in the best way to accomplish their goals. They maintained an absolute committment to fundamental things and a relative committment to that which was relative. We have to ask ourselves–is our job to become what we believe grantgivers want? Is our job to jump through hoops on forms created to evaluate museums created 50-100 years ago to appeal to audiences using the technologies available back then? Or is our job to manifest the same principled committment to future generations in a pioneering way and let grantgivers change their forms to catch up with our lead? We have to ask ourselves, before we fill up our space with display cases and “representative” physical items, “Can we do better?” For if we don’t ask this question, we will quickly supplant our unique opportunity to be pioneers in personalized history, because we can’t supply MOTS (more of the same) and still pioneer an interactive heritage center. Doesn’t the world have enough cookie cutter museums and gift shops? We have in our power the ability to make the Heritage Center a community resource and an online international center that pioneers a new type of experience for members and visitors. Through webconferencing with our members, we can provide a personalized genealogical experience for them and their families wherever they may be in the world. We can create a dozen good-paying jobs that bring capital into our community.

Reaching out to a new generation

The New Paradigm is Personalized Heritage which refuses to merely preach to the choir

What would our “personalized” history entail? Our personalized approach would begin by asking each visitor what they are interested in and allowing them to discover more about that by interacting and contributing to our enormous database. There is a simple rule, keep it fun and welcoming if you want it to grow. We want to welcome visitors by starting out with the premise that they had ancestors who were important. We want to learn with them about their ancestors’ activities and how they fit into our community tree. In a matter of half an hour, we can make a personal connection between them and historical events or people that they never realized they had a connection to.

With the advent of the internet and access to massive databases, we can make our’s both a collaborative and an inclusive historical narrative. Rather than melt everyone together into some generic Spring Grove or Midwest pioneer everyman, who never actually existed,–rather than choose one “representative” or “prominent” person, we can capture every person’s story.  This type of historical preservation and presentation was not feasible prior to the development of contemporary technology. Using this technology we can upload, store, link, and retrieve instantly any of billions of pictures and even videos through the internet. With older technology that stored the actual physical documents or artifacts only, curators were forced to selectively choose what information could be presented and preserved and throw out the rest. This gave immense and inevitably revisionist winnowing power to museum curators to “cherry pick.” Curators at privately funded museums had to effectively say to most people, “Sorry, your grandparents weren’t important enough to merit a place in our museum. Instead of learning about your grandparents, you should come here and learn about so and so’s grandparents, who were important.” Even more dangerous, publicly funded museum curators, in contrast, were given license to create the “everyman” generalizations that were subject to the particular politics and interests of the curator. Fortunately, thanks to today’s technology, we can throw away both of these elitist and generationalist paradigms and preserve the pictures, stories, actual writings, and legacies of all the people who live or have lived in our community.

Personalized Heritage Technology will usher in new types of family reunions

The identity we have, principally with our surnames only, is somewhat outdated: Surprisingly, people who share a surname are frequently less related in Spring Grove than people who don’t share a surname. You might be a second cousin to someone with a different last name and a fourth cousin to someone with the same last name, yet many people don’t even know who their second cousins are if they don’t have the same last name as them. At the center and online, we can now, in an instant, pull up the nearly complete family tree of most of the members of our community, and we can then be reminded of all the relationships that each of us have from all of our maternal sides. Invitations to family reunions at our Heritage Center can be sent out by email or facebook to those who are related to the host or hostess within 3 or 4 degrees of separation, for example, or in many other creative ways designed to remind people how interconnected we all are, rather than grouping people as “Johnsons”, or “Hagens”, or some other last name.

Oral Histories

Many of us in Spring Grove treasure the stories we would hear from the elders in our family or the elders in our community. They would tell us about growing up in the early part of the century. These would include detailed stories, such as how one’s great grandfather would go out and hold the reindeer for Santa on Christmas Eve, so that Santa would come  into the house while “Pa” was outside “holding the reindeer.”  These great stories of our deceased loved ones we wished we had videotaped, because we will never be able to go back and do it again. We certainly could never tell those stories as well as they could. Collectively, we can capture these stories while they are still being told, if community members resolve to continue to support this project with their donations that help us preserve stories for their grandchildren that they will then be able sit down on the couch someday in their homes or at our center and watch with their grandchildren. We want our organization to stay ahead of the curve by reaffirming the worth of all of our members and their family’s stories. We have already videotaped 60 hours of histories of the town as provided by our elderly residents, but we need to do hundreds more in the next year. Especially pressing this year are the stories of our few remaining WWII veterans.

No two visits to our Heritage Center need be alike

We want to provide our visitors with the ability to start with their own family and use our resources to make connections to all sorts of historical events. No two visits to the center need to be alike. Rather than merely creating a museum and allowing some historian to choose exhibits that represent our history in a way that appeals to him or her and have the rest of us endure his or her idiosyncratic. monolithic narrative about the monumental progress that we are-or are not-going through, we can open up the narrative to the little guys. By making use of the digital archives, visitors can summon up immense catalogued resources of their choosing in seconds and present them on a screen. The new interactivity we wish to offer is based upon the realization that frequently the most universal truths are found in the lives of real individuals to which one has a personal connection. The mysterious “typical” or “representative” individuals, that we are led to believe existed at different historical times, could be simply straw-men created by some new revisionist historian who simply wishes to promote his agenda or glamorize his interests. By preserving the stories of real people, monumental historical myths and generalizations can be continuously evaluated in the light of actual evidence. Generalized facts that have been pedantically propagated in the heteronomous environment of educational institutions for the last century can be deconstructed and replaced by the light of parsimonious hypotheses made tenable by actual historical data generated during the multigenerational existence of a sustainable community.

Keeping it real

In making important life decisions, people often draw insight as they reflect on and interpret their own experiences and the stories that convey others’ experience. Thus, the vision that creates future history is made in the development of each person’s interpretation of stories they consider to represent reality. We want to democratize this interpretive, developmental process and remove the possibility that the essential feedback loops that keep the dialectical process healthy are not destroyed by excessive compliance with the demands of a single generation’s majority (which likes to call itself “the public”) or of particular private interests. We want to maintain a balance between public and private interests. When we receive funding–either public or private, we certainly should thank our sources sincerely. In that they contribute to our vision we should recognize  them and help them, but we must make sure that we aren’t backsliding on our inclusive and multigenerational vision in order to promote funding in the near future or out of fear.

Eternal vigilance is the price…

Although we must always we kind, we must also be eternally vigilant in our deliberation of what constitutes heritage, so that the books of wisdom in our libraries will be understood, and so that those who call the public to rational discourse will not be simply a voice crying out in the wilderness. Without real heritage, our children will not be able to discern the difference between the call to principled service of sustainable community and the rhetorical siren songs of post-modernity.

History has many more facets than any one individual can understand, and there is no reason not to bring in the narratives of all those who have a stake in history, which is everyone. Most importantly, the Heritage Center can be an agora, in which historical narratives of all types can be heard, and people can continually synthesize the narrative that makes most sense to them as they reflect on how the lives of their ancestors affected their own lives, and how their own actions or inactions also limit or expand the freedoms that subsequent generations will have. Ultimately, allowing people to develop an understanding of what constituted good sustainable stewardship in the past may be one of the most effectual means of promoting sustainable stewardship, not just of one generation, or of one branch of humanity, but of the whole tree of human Being. The leaves on the tree of life are for the healing of the nations.

An Interactive and Dynamic Center

I hope we will incorporate interactive and dynamic elements such as work stations, touchscreen monitors, and child friendly interactive screens that allow visitors to interact with our online family tree, which will contain oral histories, genetic information, stories, pictures, videos and more.

What do we think about paternal and grandpaternal guidance in America? We think it would be a good thing.

Genealogical research teaches us how to make prudent life decisions within the small windows of opportunity provided by each human life. The great irony these days is that by the time we are old enough to appreciate the importance of heritage studies, most of our major decisions have already been made–with respect to marriage, children, vocation, etc.

This was not always the case. At one time children learned the stories of their ancestors’ experience as they sat around the fires at night. Therefore, the most important change that needs to happen to the genealogical community is to reconnect with the younger generations. If we fail to make our Heritage Center youth-friendly, we will only be providing more of the same type of museum that has preached to the choir but neglected the masses for a hundred years. There is a tragic irony in turning a Heritage Center into a non-child friendly environment, filled with items too valuable to interact with at a child’s level, so that children are unwelcome or constantly scolded within our center. Children are the future of existence and as such they will someday be the only people who had a personal connection to us, for we will have passed away, save for the legacies we have left. Each one of our children is more valuable than any material object in existence. “Let the little children come…” for they are the essence of the future in which the past can be preserved. We should not store up our riches in objects, which decay, but in preserving that which nurtures the development of each little miracle born into our community. Having said that we must make our center child friendly, it is also important to note that we do not wish to make it friendly to the point that we water down our message so much that there is none. If we simply provide the same type of youth activities that youths can get anywhere, then we have only made work for ourselves without accomplishing anything. Further, we never want to draw youth away from another organizations good event, but we want cooperate with all other community empowering organizations, to co-sponsor everything, endorse, and publicize others events, and to fill in where we see a heritage need. If we try to do everything, we will never accomplish our vision of creating a complete community family tree.

The Tree comes first, because it makes the personalized approach possible

Once that tree is complete, our museum can then be as specialized or generalized as members wish, since our extremely large and rapidly growing genealogical database provides the perfect framework for indexing and sharing digitized video, audio, pictures, and other documents related to any given family, event, or topic in our extended community. Why should we choose who are the prominent families in Spring Grove when technology allows us to preserve the pictures and legacies of all of our families? With limited resources, it is only fair to begin researching the stories of the ancesors of those who contribute to our heritage center. However, we ought never to forget that history was caused by the interaction of all people’s ancestors, and not just those who have donated to us. Secondly, we must always remember that heritage is is categorically different than any particular skill or item. It cannot be bought in a gift shop. It cannot be purchased like indulgences. It cannot be made in a craft class. Heritage is something that isn’t given to you in a perfect state. Each person inherits conditioning and momentum–but these are not stewardship heritage. Each person may choose to accept, to resist, or to yield to and then overcome that momentum through critical reflection, and conscious self-reconditioning.

Genealogy empowers modesty and service

Some people are turned off by genealogy because they think it is elitist. While at first, this might seem to be the case, experience shows that genealogy humbles the proud and inspires the poor in spirit. That is because, when anyone really studies it, they realize how interrelated everyone is. No one is so superior that they don’t have a horse thief or someone similar in their ancestry. No one is so base as to lack a royal ancestor if they go back far enough. Some of us might have lost the written trail, but genetic genealogy changes everything. Our genetic analysis is demonstrating the interconnectedness of the town as well as reaching out to distant cousins across the globe. Using genetic technology, we can help someone trace their ancestors back with incredible accuracy to any place in the world–right down to the villages in Europe, Asia, or Africa that they came from. That is truly an inclusive genealogical service. Stay tuned for the upcoming videos Giants is preparing, modeled after “Who do you think you are?” television series that will document the experiences of members of the Spring Grove community as our genetic analysis answers the question “Where’d you get your genes?”

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