The Archives to the Rug: The Path of America Votes
During the last 15 years, in my work as an independent consultant, I have focused primary on three, often connected pieces: Exhibitions, Curriculum Development, and Teacher Training. Ideally, the three roles reinforce and support one another as I travel from the ‘archive to the rug’. I take my training as an historian, cull what is engaging and essential to tell a compelling story, work with educators on how they might find relevance in the materials, and then integrate a few of the items in Lesson Plans and Family Activities to highlight the fundamental skills and ideas that form the foundation of essential learning. By means of illustration, the following details one specific process, The America Votes Exhibition which was at the Boston Public Library from March 26 to November 10, 2012.
Exhibitions are balancing acts. And there are several factors that need to be in stasis simultaneously—types of materials, a compelling story that is of interest to both a general audience and a scholarly one, relevant educational content, text that cannot exceed 100 words per item nor an 8th grade reading level, the space to be occupied, and whatever agenda the person(s) holding the purse strings might have. There is also the unbelievable delight in the ascent into the archive, luxuriating in the materials, wanting to include each and every thing you see. The difference between being a pure scholar and any other field is that tension—needing to set limits of time, language, and place. I am an academic as well which gives me license to appreciate the materials I see but as an educator, I am mindful of the immediacy and restrictions of the practical that loom.
I had approximately six weeks to select the 35 objects to tell this story, and which aspects of the story to even tell? How to distill decades of my own academic knowledge of American political history into any exhibition seems daunting but I am not trying to tell the entire story—just its essence. History is about choices. So is mounting an exhibition. In the case of exhibitions the objects can serve as a guide. Access to the original Gerrymander Map and Cartoon framed the story. Despite the framers’ intentions, American Politics would be the stuff of sustained and often rancorous partisanship, thus the value of the monster drawn a mere 25 years after the adoption of the Constitution. As luck would have it, we found an extraordinary contemporary cartoon, of an elephant and a donkey flicking red and blue paint on a map of Texas to illustrate current problems of redistricting. The first display case, Gerrymander to Bushmander, was set.
Onto Massachusetts and its history. We found maps, campaign ads and showed change over time. Lacking a single visual, we constructed our own graphic that showed in Red, White and Blue against a Black background the state’s decreasing role in the national electoral landscape despite its growing population. The role of states in general to preserve their power vis a vis the increasing strength of the Federal government framed the exterior wall of the gallery.
While the Red and Blue of contemporary presidential election maps are now quite familiar, the desire to capture election results in a single image dates back to the 1880s. Central to the illustrator’s and viewer’s problem is that while we vote by population, we present results by acreage, often creating distorted impressions. California has 20 times the votes of Wyoming but certainly does not appear that way on the standard map. Cartograms of states and county results provided an altered and more accurate presentation of the results.
I also chose to include the story of groups originally excluded from the Franchise, and document the difficult and often shameful trajectory of getting the vote for Blacks and Women through cartoons, photographs, lithographs, and maps. Finally, contemporary discourse inspired me to explore the often irrational in our nation’s political past (and allow viewers to draw whatever parallels to the present they wished), and I injected several items on the Prohibition and Sale of Alcohol.
Once the items were selected and captions written, my choices and words were reviewed and edited, not by scholars or even educators but by the development team and graphic designers—how did they appear? Would they sell? These are the practical realities of exhibitions in public spaces. But the integrity of the endeavor was not compromised. The goal of exploring what voting has meant in our nation’s overall story was the essence of the exhibition and remained present in each item and in turn, each contributed to telling this compelling tale. You can see the digitized exhibition here, America Votes.
How would the themes of the exhibit be translated into professional development opportunities for educators? Which topics would be most salient to cover? To that end, I arranged for a week long summer institute, drawing on the resources of the Boston Public Library, the National Archives and the Massachusetts Geography Alliance. Our ice breaker invited participants to place a sticker on a world map “on the first place they voted.” While most interpreted the direction, purposefully vague, as a presidential election, we happily accepted stickers that located grade school selections of hall monitors, family disputes over vacations, or summer camp polls for spirit songs. The point, which we threaded through the week, including in the final curriculum assignment, was that Voting Matters.
The 40 teachers in Grades K to 12, who came from 20 different districts in Massachusetts, as well as one from Rhode Island and two from New York, alternated between the role of student and teacher, meeting in full group sessions and working in smaller units, often mixed by grades. We had fabulous guest speakers, including former Governor Dukakis, and a field trip to the State House where we learned about the recent redistricting in Massachusetts. The majority of the week was spent working in small groups where the participants explored materials, evaluated the mechanics of our political and electoral system past and present, pondered how they would broach these topics with their own students, and questioned many of their own long held assumptions. As needed, we provided ample historic content and context but the teachers spent much of their time learning from one another.
Given the size of the group, different teachers took the lead in these small group activities. The high school teachers were most helpful as we explored what the Constitution. We passed the baton of the MA voting graph, seeing how it might be employed at several stages in a student’s K-12 education with our elementary teachers leading the way. Middle school geography teachers were a great asset on Day 1 as we pondered the connection between physical landscapes and resulting political systems.
Abridged versions of the summer institute continued throughout the fall, including work with librarians and teachers throughout the state. Central to all of these efforts was helping teachers explore the role of choice with their students, the essence of what it means to vote, rarely a simple or linear activity, much akin to the selection of items for an exhibition.
There are several ways to use materials to educate the public. I never expect viewers (of any age) to look at each item. Instead, I select a few items and have them engage in a round robin, perhaps spending 6 or 7 minutes at each, focusing on a few questions. I created three versions, one for Elementary, one for Middle School and one for High School and they were often used in conjunction with school visits to the Map Center. Digitized on the library’s main website, the entire experienced could be done virtually.
In anticipation of the upcoming election, we also used the items as the basis for two different sets of Curriculum Guides, America Votes and Election 2012. Both were written in 3 versions: Elementary, Middle School and High School. Here I was focusing on both the content of the actual exhibition as well as more general curriculum topics. In terms of the former, I included lessons on Massachusetts Congressional Districts, Political Cartoons, Amending the Constitution, and Presidential Election Maps. The latter, was again divided into two distinct categories. One was to be used specifically for the 2012 Campaign, such as exploring the issues, learning about the candidates, and tracking their travels, ads and finances while the other covered topics taught each year such as the Electoral College, Political Parties and Constitutional Checks and Balances.
All of these materials, which included Common Core and Massachusetts teaching frameworks, detailed procedures for teachers, student sheets, and enrichment activities, are available at America Votes ES, America Votes MS, and America Votes HS.[NB: I have updated the HS materials to include the 2016 Election materials]