Photographs show the inside and outside of the Robstown Area Historical Museum
Conducting local history research requires a detailed archival record; and ideally in a central location. This becomes difficult when historical and cultural institutions have large historical gaps. The Robstown Area Historical Museum (RAHM) Community History Day event seeks to fill these gaps by including the local community in archival collection, historical revival, and community celebration.
This event has been two years in the making. While attending The University of Texas at Austin in Fall 2013, I was conducting research for my Mexican American and Latina/o Studies (MALS) undergraduate honors thesis “Occupying La Lomita: Claiming Chicana/o Space and Identity in Robstown, Tx,” advised by Professor Emilio Zamora. Here I went first to cultural institutions — a local museum and a library — to look for materials. When I first visited the Robstown Area Historical Museum, located immediately across from city hall, to ask about the Chicana/o Movement, I was met with a “Nothing from that time really survived.” After this exchange, I realized most of my primary sources would be oral histories from individuals directly involved in the movement. To my surprise, many of the interviewees still held on to objects, photos, and documents. It seemed like a disconnect to me that the museum did not have information about these events while the information existed.
I kept thinking about how I can potentially close this gap. It was when I entered my graduate school program that I started to develop the language and tools to make this happen. My first class in Public Humanities with Steve Lubar, “Intro to Public Humanities,” gave me the time and knowledge to start the drafting of this event. Throughout the course I looked at four projects in detail that I felt could help with planning the Community History Day. I used these projects as a foundation: Chicana Por Mi Raza, Civil Rights in Black and Brown, Bracero History Archives, MASS Memories Road Show (MMRS).
Even though these projects served as a blueprints, the Robstown Area Historical Museum Community History Day faces different challenges. MMRS is closest to what I planned, but on a much smaller scale. Whereas MMRS tries to document all of Massachusetts, the RAHM CHD sought a hyperlocal approach to documenting. The RAHM is also underfunded and currently only volunteer-led, so the amount of funding to host an event is almost nonexistent. With the help of generous individual donors, the RAHM has extended to three other rooms in the building and is limited in space. Also, they currently do not have an online archival database. With these factors working against them, I still believed we could host a successful event.
After making a concrete plan in AMST 2540 “Methods in Public Humanities,” I contacted the Robstown Area Historical Museum about the event. See my first proposal to RAHM here: Robsotwn Area Historical Museum Proposal. I approached the museum board with the intention of helping them raise awareness throughout the community about the museum and then in the coming months host the event, hopefully resulting in a large, diverse turnout. My first attempt was to create a Robstown Area Historical Museum Facebook and post weekly historical photos accompanied by text. I decided Facebook would be the most effective way to get people to: 1) like and share the page and 2) interact with the page by commenting, posting their own photos, etc. Now five months later the Facebook has almost 400 likes and 29 posts.
Photographs are screenshots from various RAHM Facebook posts
After the museum officially agreed to be the leading/hosting institution, I set out to make other connections. I wanted to make this event a community-wide event by including organizations and individuals from throughout Robstown. Having worked with the Nueces County Keach Family Library in 2014 when I gave a talk about the Chicana/o Movement, I knew they would be a good institution to approach. They were very receptive to my ambitions and agreed to house the event. The Keach Library is often seen as a neutral space for the community and this helps break down power relations between the community and the museum. I approached the City of Robstown for their recognition of the importance of local history and to get the mayor out to speak at the event. And I believe that high school students could benefit by being a part of this event so I contact the sponsors of the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs, volunteer-oriented clubs, from Robstown High School to extend this opportunity to their students. These arrangements proved to be rewarding and this document was sent to all parties as reference about the project: RAHM_CommunityHistoryDay_Abridgment.
Connections were being made on a local level, but we still needed funding so I sought state-level resources. The research to figure out which institutions would be willing to fund our event was done in “Intro to Public Humanities,” but the refinement of the grant was completed in “Methods in Public Humanities.” I decided that a Humanities Texas Mini-Grant would provide us with the best turn around and chances of being able to fund at least some of the event. After speaking with the individuals from the Humanities Texas and receiving feedback on the grant from scholars and the museum board, I submitted the grant at the end of March and by the end of April we were awarded $1,000 towards the Community History Day event. See submitted grant and supplemental materials here: HumanitiesTx_RAHMgrant_AMST2540
Flier for the Robstown Area Historical Community History Day
Trying to direct a project in South Texas from Rhode Island was been incredibly challenging but I found ways to make my visits productive. Over winter break (2015-2016) I volunteered at the museum in order to learn about the its collections while building connections with the board members. During the week of spring break (2016) I met with the museum board to update them about the progress of the event; at this meeting I was asked to become a member of the museum advisory board. This same week I also had a meeting with the Keach Family Library staff to do a walk through of the space and take notes of possible set-up. Here the library staff graciously offered two scanning stations (i.e., a computer plus scanner) and cameras for us to rent and use during the event.
Leading up to the event I focused on the detailed logistics for the day. I volunteered with Carolyn Goldstein at the MASS Memories Road Show and learned a better sense of how to train volunteers and figure out a way to collect metadata and scanning. I adapted a system that moved from registration to information to scanning to digitization that traveled as one stream of information from MMRS (see above). This required a particular numbering and filing system across all three required stations (e.g., registration, information, scanning). If you would like to learn more about this system, please feel free to contact me.
I arrived in Robstown before the event to make sure advertising, printing, supplies, volunteers, etc., were ready to go. I printed just over 200 to fliers (pictured above) to pass around to stores, restaurants, bus stops, and other community spaces. A press release was also sent out to local media outlets and I immediately received eager responses to write about the event. We ended up having 3 newspaper articles, two local news shows, and two radio shows write/speak about the event. The Mayor of Robstown also shot a live Facebook feed on the day of the event. While a Facebook event was useful for people to learn more information, it was not a place that was our primary contact with possible contributors; rather, this occurred through these other news mediums.
The day of the event was busy. At 7am, after not sleeping all night, I got up to make sure I had everything packed in my car. This included the food for the volunteers, the pop-up exhibit, and all of the paperwork and supplies we would need for the day. I arrived at the museum by 8:30 to unload. At 8:45 volunteers started to show and help with set-up. And by roughly 9 we started our presentation of speakers. We had four speakers: Ida Garza, Director of Nueces County Libraries; Herman Rodriguez, Robstown City Secretary; Dr. Rumaldo Juarez, Museum Board Vice President; and myself. At about 9:45 we started the collection portion of the event. With some hiccups, we had people until 3:30 come in to get their photos scanned.
Pictures from the RAHM Community History Day
To an audience of thirty people I spoke about how I came to this project and how community participation is critical to our histories. My approach was one that took into account the history of disenfranchisement and distrust between museums and communities of color. By the end of my talk I was stressing the importance of Mexican American Studies and Ethnic Studies and how the schools and the museum could partner to make this happen. While there was concern about my advocacy for Ethnic Studies throughout the week leading up to the event, most audience members were pleased with my talk. Before donating, a few contributors approached me and stressed how they were ambivalent towards donating because they viewed the museum as, “not having anything about the Chicano Movement. So I wasn’t sure if this is what yall were looking for.” I tried to set a mood reflecting empowerment through sharing and discussion, and through this we build a more complete historical picture by stating:
If you want to learn the history of a place, don’t just learn the history of its people. Rather, learn the history from its people. The Robstown Area Historical Museum Community History Day is about learning the history of Robstown from the people of Robstown…. Today we are adding pieces to the already established story. And I’m hoping, in fact, I’m certain that today’s contributions will result in a more complete, complicated, and contested history. But what matters is that we feel empowered by sharing our histories and that speaking across time and place has the potential to get us to a better understanding of self and community.
Throughout the day we kept a steady pace. We always had someone donating photos or people just simply walking around. People could take a look at our pop-up exhibit, find out more about local genealogical resources, and record a quick oral history about their lives in Robstown. Walking by stories could be heard about a specific building, area, or person.
Although we had the oral history video camera rolling, it was not very successful. We wanted a quiet space to have the interviews so we set up the cameras in the back study rooms. There is a distance between the room where the event was held and the study rooms that made it seem almost separate from the event. Second, it was difficult to get contributors to sit in front of a camera and speak about the history they had just spent 30 minutes writing and thinking about. By the end of the event our camera-person was simply going around to tables and asking individuals about what they brought to contribute. This sort of on-the-spot interview style could work really well for future events because people are more likely to give a response to the camera at a moment’s notice. It takes out the anxiety of “what am I going to say?”
The event, I believe, was successful. My evaluation measurements were simple: Did we get people who had never been to the museum to come in and contribute? Could we get the attention of the community? and, could we document a more complete history of Robstown through these scanned images? The first was surprisingly easy. People who had never been to the museum, mainly because of its restrictive hours (Thursdays from 10am-3pm and first Saturday of the month from 1-3pm), came in to see what the museum had to offer. And I believe this had to do with the advertising we worked so hard towards. As for the last measurement of evaluation, we ended up receiving some incredibly important images that helped fill some gaps in the museum.
Everything from the the first house in the Robstown area in 1905, before the town was incorporated as a city, to the most recent senior class picture. Most people would come in and say, “I’m not sure if anything I have is important.” But then they would reveal these amazing pictures of their family-owned businesses from the 1930s or a picture of a house they used to live in when they were migrant children. To me these images allowed access to a whole new history, but to them it was just a photo of no significance to anyone but themselves. This led me to the questions of: How can people come to realize/see their histories as important? And how/where in our historical memory have people learned that documenting their history is not important? We were able to convince most people to donate, especially after we told them that they would be able to write a description and tell us more about the document through their own voice.
Scanned photos contributed during the RAHM Community History Day
This resulted in about 60 photos scanned and donated to the museum. About 46 people officially registered but the clicker tallied about 120 individuals who walked into the space to look around, chat, and/or contribute. I was incredibly pleased with these numbers because I was worried that we would not have a plentiful turnout.
While this project sought to provide a space for community members to contribute to the creation of history, I would like for the items collected to give back in meaningful ways. The documents contributed will be used by the museum to add to the existing exhibit displays, but I believe the items need to be able to live beyond the museum. For example, we could build a curriculum around local history for schools and provide museum tours, or at least include local histories using museum archives into their already established curriculum. On an individual level, these archives can serve for academic and personal research. Personally, I would like to see a book to be published that commemorates both the day of the event as well as every picture that was contributed with the metadata provided by the contributors.
I originally set out to help the Robstown Area Historical Museum fill historical gaps. However, as the Project Manager for the Community History Day, I found an interest in local, rural museums that provide a unique and necessary service to its community members while underfunded and understaffed. While I have always seen my work as having a public humanities bend, I was able to put my skills and knowledge into action through this project.
Dates of Past Events:
July 8, 2016 // Community History Day Volunteer Orientation // Nueces County Keach Family Library // 1000 Terry Shamsie Blvd., Robstown, TX 78380
July 9, 2016 // Robstown Area Historical Museum Community History Day Event // Nueces County Keach Family Library // 1000 Terry Shamsie Blvd., Robstown, TX 78380