“Authenticity: Real Things, Real Stories, Real Places”
Keynote, Washington Museum Association Conference,
Fort. Worden, 6/18/14
By Knute Berger

knuteI really admire the challenge you’ve set up for yourselves this week. “Authenticity: Real Things, Real Stories, Real Places.”

It’s a very ambitious agenda, especially since we’re all on our first cups of coffee: What is reality?

I feel like I’ve landed on the Plato’s Republic of Port Townsend.

Authenticity and reality are out of vogue these days.

We’re trying to figure them out as members of a society that doesn’t put much stock in reality–despite so-called reality TV. Duck Dynasty. Jersey Shore. American Idol. That’s today’s reality.

Climate denial, collapsing infrastructure, short attention spans, manufactured crises, the idea that history and its consequences don’t somehow apply to us Americans because we are all about the future and yesterday really doesn’t matter.

If Walt Whitman were alive he would hear America Tweeting–and re-Tweeting– and wonder, what the hell has happened to the body electric in an electronic age? Presumably he would do this while attempting to load Leaves of Grass onto his Nook, because he’d be boycotting Kindle over an argument on eBook rights.

Speaking of eBooks, my new eBook, “Roots of Tomorrow” is now available on Amazon. I’ll talk a little more about the project in a bit, but I had to work in a plug somewhere and this seemed like a good spot.

Today, authenticity and reality are elusive, debatable. Like art or pornography, we feel like we know them when we see them, but they are hard to define.

For example, you can stand in Seattle’s Pioneer Square and soak in the history of Seattle’s main historic district. You can tour Underground Seattle and literally see the city’s foundations—and dirty basements. I think the housekeeping is better in Pompeii!

If you spend time in Pioneer Square, you’ll feel as though you have had an authentic experience of old-time Seattle, you will have heard its stories, seen some of its icons. You will go home a contented tourist.

But is it real?

Pioneer Square use to be an open space. It is now clogged with mature trees. It looks nothing like it did in the old days.

There is a bust of the city’s namesake there, Chief Seattle. Only that wasn’t his name, which was more like “Sealth,” but difficult for settlers to say. The chief is famous for giving a speech in 1854 that we all have read and love for its wisdom about life, time and history. Some of the speech might actually have been said by Seattle. But that famous oration was translated, embellished with Victorian prose, and crafted from notes by a white man. It is, at best, a best-guess reconstruction of the real speech that was first published nearly a generation after it was given.

There is a famous totem pole in Pioneer Square. You can’t get more authentic than that. Except, the current totem isn’t the one that was there originally–that one was stolen from the Tlingit tribe of Alaska, and later destroyed by fire. This pole is a replacement, but it is the symbol of a tribe that didn’t even live here. The tribes of Puget Sound did not have totem poles of this kind. In fact, it was put in place not as a reflection of local, indigenous culture, but as a symbol of conquest.

The centerpiece of Pioneer Square is the magnificent turn-of-the-century Pergola, the beautiful metal and glass canopy that provides shelter. But it no longer serves its chief purpose, which was to provide public comfort stations–restrooms–which are underneath it, and closed. The structure itself is new, a reconstruction of the original which was destroyed by a truck in 2001. It still is a magnet trucks, by the way–last year it was damaged and bashed at least three times by trucks, and damaged by happy Seahawks Super Bowl celebrants. It has been authentically recreated to look like the original–but it is a battered and bruised replica. Oh, and it was also built as a stop for the Yesler & James cable car. We don’t have that anymore either.

So, we have achieved authenticity in Pioneer Square by creating something entirely new and historically inaccurate. We’ve constructed a reality that conveys a strong sense of Seattle’s heritage and a strong sense of place by using century-old forms and ideas and blending them to achieve a current purpose. Our history is real, our sense of history is palpable, even if the individual components are artificial or at approximate.

This example gets at a tricky balance for historians, museums, preservationists, and heritage advocates. How do you use material to tell stories that get at the truth? And how do you tell those stories in an engaging, and perhaps lasting, way? How do your use things that are inauthentic to create an authentic reality—whatever that is?

As a writer, I wrestle with these issues all the time, and have some thoughts from recent experience that might be interesting to you.

For one thing, I think I have one special qualification to talk to museum folk about reality, and that is I have been an exhibit.

Yes, I was put on display.

In 2011 I was appointed the Space Needle’s Writer-in-Residence while I worked on a book on the Needle’s first 50 years: “Space Needle, the Spirit of Seattle.” Needless to say, it was a very cool assignment. I had been up the Needle for the 1962 World’s fair and many times since. That fair and those visits sparked a love of world’s fairs (I’ve been to eight fairs in eight different countries). It also left a lasting impression.

One of those was my first glimpse of the Space Needle. I was 8 years old in the late fall of 1961. My Cub Scout “Den” went up the Smith Tower, then still the tallest building West of the Mississippi. And from the observation platform of the Tower we had an unobstructed view of the Space Needle under construction. They were putting on the top–it was not yet complete. We boys were thrilled. There on our horizon was the Space Age future we’d heard so much about in that era of astronauts, a future were all eager to embrace. Just across town, that future was so close you could almost touch it. And during the fair I was delighted to discover the future also had a cool, revolving restaurant and you could eat up there. The future should always have a good restaurant, I believe.

Even at 8 years old, I was keenly aware that I loved the building I was standing on. But I felt sorry for the Smith Tower, that it wasn’t going to be tallest anymore. Today, an entire city has grown up between the Tower and the Needle. In fact, from the Space Needle, there is now only one single narrow corridor down which you can even see a small slice of the Smith Tower, so dwarfed has become by the forest of skyscrapers that has sprouted over the last half century. It helps to use binoculars too.

You can imagine my thrill, then, at getting to tell the Space Needle’s story, and for my research, I was given a desk on the Observation Deck. This was done for several reasons. One, was that in doing my research, spending time at the Needle would give me a feel for life there on a daily basis–the ebb and flow of tourists and diners and celebrities, like Buzz Aldrin who made fun of my beard—he said I must have been “in residence” a looooong time.

The Needle is an absolute nexus of Seattle culture–from the flags the Needle flies to the cocktails it serves to the weddings it hosts. I would interview someone over lunch at the Skycity restaurant, then scoot up to the O-deck and blog about it–yes, my “office” had wi-fi.

The “office” consisted of an Eames modern-style circular metallic table with a couple of Space Age-y orange chairs. It also had a sign with my name and title, and it was cordoned off near the windows. So when I would go up there to write a couple times per week, I was sitting at a roped off desk with a sign labeling me like an exhibit, or zoo animal. People came by and stopped and stared and talked about me as if I wasn’t there: “Look, it’s a writer!” Luckily, no one ask is I was related to Bobo, Seattle once famous celebrity gorilla.

Once in awhile visitors would interact with me. Sometimes, those with tired feet would sit down in my guest chair–without speaking to me or asking permission, as if I was a wax figure with a spare seat. Some used me as an information booth: “Where’s the rest room!” “What’s that mountain over there?” “Which way is Canada?” Some asked about what I was writing, others would tell me about their Seattle memories. I even met a retired Seattle police officer who had acted as Elvis Presley’s bodyguard during his time at the fair. That gave me some invaluable detail for my book. I was an exhibit, albeit one that was determined to garner at least as much information as I was giving.

My presence also seemed to generate questions about writing. “What’s it like to work here?” “When will your book be out?” “What’s it like to be a writer?” “What are they paying you?” “I’m a writer, would you like to see my blog?” “Can I use your wi-fi?”

I’m not sure how authentic my exhibit was, but it was real. A real writer working on a real project while soaking up the atmosphere of his chief subject and, occasionally, acting as guide and writing counselor.

You may want to consider putting local writers behind glass at your museums to see of they can generate interest and interactivity.

Being an exhibit gave me an appreciation for how people see things. I have also gotten a taste of this at world’s fairs in Japan and China where, as one of the few Europeans at an expo, let alone one of a few foreign visitors with something as bizarre as a beard, I was asked to pose for literally thousands of photographs. You realize that how much of what you have to offer viewers is less about substance, than symbolic. You’re a stand in for culture, for novelty, as a way to prove that someone has seen the elephant, the old phrase people used to indicate they had left the countryside and seen something truly exotic. You were a person of the world if you’d be to a circus at a remote market town and had “seen the elephant.”

I find that I visit museums with a bit of that same mindset–which is that I want to learn something about what I am seeing, but I also want my mind blown. I want the elephant. I want to see something that changes my view of life or history, that proves I’ve been somewhere and experienced something worthy–or to put it in the most shallow cultural terms possible—something worthy of posting on Facebook. Something that can compete with Facebook posts about Jon Stewart or cats!

As a writer, I am instinctively looking for stories. I go to a conference, listen to academic papers, and look for something that stands out as unusual, that would make a reader go, “Oh, really? Cool!” “You’re kidding. Wow!” Something that just might make a light-bulb go on over someone’s head.

In the amusement park business, they call that “the squeal factor.” Good stories have some kind of squeal factor.

This is another way that authenticity and reality can be mined for “real stories.” A real story is not simply a recitation of the truth, it is something that will have meaning and impact for the reader or listener or viewer. Stories have suspense, they have a twist, they have an arc, they start somewhere and end somewhere. Often, stories come as the result of pursuing the answers to questions that have been raised.

I have had a couple of recent powerful moments in museums that might be of interest because they all involved authenticity, reality and real stories.

For some months, I have been taking my granddaughter out on Friday afternoons for various tours and museum trips. A most powerful and poignant outing was our trip to see the Civil War Pathways exhibit at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.

The exhibit details life in Washington before and during the Civil War period, and it makes the connection between our then territory and the war–the men here who fought on both sides, the fact that there were slaves–a few at least–in Washington and Oregon. It turns on its head the notion that we were mere bystanders; our history is intertwined with the war and issues like slavery and states rights etc. They were front and center here as well as across the nation. I participated in a crowd-sourcing project last year that scoured the Civil War era newspapers in Washington to see how and what was covered here; the papers were filled with news and debate. The issues of north and south lived here.

As we neared the end of the Pathways exhibit, my granddaughter, who is nine, spotted a costume prominently displayed on a mannequin. “What is that?” she wanted to know. It was a Ku Klux Klan robe.

My granddaughter is African American, and at nine, her favorite things are fashion, roses, the color pink, painting and drawing, and her pet rabbit. She has been subjected to racism since she was an infant; in kindergarten, she tried to rub the brown out of her skin so she could be like other children at her school. Her life is a constant lesson for me about race in our society.

So, I found myself at a difficult moment, trying to explain in basic terms what the Klan was without terrifying her. I got tongue-tied explaining the Klan’s prejudice against African Americans, burning crosses, terrorism. I tried to say that this was mostly in the past, while acknowledging that they still exist and had existed here in the Northwest, but are not as powerful as they once were. Still, on the wall was a photograph of hundreds of hooded Klan members filling a Seattle ballroom in the 1920s. How do you explain all this to a girl whose main topic of conversation is her pet bunny, Mr. Marshmallow?

Nearby we looked in a display case of Klan literature, and I realized the Klan’s issues — race hatred, anti-Semitism, anti-government, anti-immigration — are all still with us today, if under different guises. They are on TV every night. In Los Angeles, you hear it from the owner of an NBA team. On FoxNews, you hear it from the mouth of a supposedly patriotic Nevada cattleman, who posits that slavery was better for African Americans than the alternative.

As I stumbled around trying to explain it, she listened, then said, “Ku Klux Klan is a funny name. They should be the Ku Klux Klowns.” We laughed and she started rhyming and making a kind of impromptu rap from all the K sounds.

I watched her transform an absurd outrage into humor, to refuse to be intimidated by hate dressed in a clown costume. That’s a skill she’ll really need as she grows up.

To me, this is the kind of real, authentic, and I would say transformative, experience a good museum can provide. It was an exhibit from the past that plunked down powerfully right in our present. It might not mean a lot to many people. I might have walked right by it. But it got my granddaughter’s attention–no mean feat. It stopped her in her tracks. It forced us to look, to talk, to connect, to laugh, to deal with it. It was a “wow” moment with so many emotions packed into it.

Another exhibit that struck me recently–well, thank goodness it didn’t actually strike me–was down at the Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum in Pioneer Square. The museum, put together by police officers and King County Sheriff’s Office alumni–tells a fascinating history of the city and county police departments. It seems honest and fair–not a kind of Clint Eastwood-Dirty Harry macho exercise–and it is full of artifacts, many of which belong to a single officer who has collected them from other former police over the years. Among these are weapons, the guns, saps, batons, nightsticks and other devices used by police over the decades. I have not yet taken my granddaughter there.

One of the standout artifacts is a rubber hose. Yes, an actual rubber hose that was found at the old police department headquarters and was used for beating prisoners. You might be interested to know that once the SPD had a jail cell known as the place to give suspects the “third degree.” Seattle also used to have a chain gang and a prison farm, by the way.

The rubber hose, I was informed, was not standard issue police equipment. And the museum is a bit vague on when it was used–probably in the 1920s. I don’t think anyone who knew about it cared to be too specific. Yet someone saved it, someone found it, and it wound up in the museum on display. It is just there. So is a pair of gloves with lead dust sewn into the finger parts. These were used by some police to deal with troublesome suspects. It’s literally like having a sap on your finger tips, and they do softer work than, say, brass knuckles.

I admire the police museum for putting this stuff on display, especially at a time when the department is under a federal consent degree to clean up its act due to issues related to the use of force. The department is going through huge upheaval–a new chief is being appointed, the fourth chief in the last year or so. The city council and new mayor are determined to reform and reorganize the department so that it can regain public confidence. The police museum gives us a picture of how policing has changed over the course of Seattle history, and it doesn’t shy away from some of its darker past. It is a police museum by police officers–not unions, not headquarters. It is refreshingly real, not all PR. And it makes you aware of how some things change, and how some things stay the same.

I suspect many collections of many different kinds contain objects that are the Klan costumes and rubber hoses of their respective corners of life and history. As a writer, these are the kinds of challenging things I want to see on display; they are what inspire me, nudge me, call out for their real stories to be told.

I promised you a bit more about my eBook project, and it’s relevant to this discussion of authenticity. Last year, with help from Crosscut and a grant from King County’s 4Culture, I did a series of stories about what I called “early urbanism” in Seattle, highlighting examples of what we think of now as best-practice urbanism. For example, I wrote about Seattle’s turn-of-the-century bike culture. Did you know that in 1900 Seattle has 25 miles of dedicated bike trails? That in the 1890s, Seattle had a bike toll road? That the bike, for a time, was considered the new, popular urban machine around which to design cities? I didn’t.

In my work for Crosscut, Seattle magazine and other outlets, what I have sought to do is explain the present by exploring the past. And I thought this project would connect with people by putting before them the history of many of the elements that are part of current civic debates. Bikes, for example. Or the complex negotiation of urban space between pedestrians, cyclists, horses, mules, wagons, and autos that began with the arrival of the first car in Washington in 1900.

That first car, by the way, still exists in the collection of the Washington State Historical Society and you might be interested in the fact that one) it was an electric car, a Woods Electric, built in 1899. The Woods Company in fact later built the first hybrid gas/electric car, two) that the Seattle man who bought it, Ralph Hopkins, did so mostly because he was a wealthy bachelor who wanted to impress the ladies, so he said. Others said that’s exactly what he did. One woman reminisced “Remember when the first automobile entered Seattle and Ralph Hopkins, the proud possessor, was the lion of the hour. How popular he was with the girls; and how elated when a girl would exclaim that she had had an automobile ride.”

This object is not currently on display, but I think much could be made of it in light of the current interest in creating sustainable vehicles, as an artifact that witnessed the first War on Cars that took place as machines like Hopkins’ were introduced to city streets and Seattle citizen threatened to shoot the drivers if they didn’t slow down and stop running people over. It represents the class issues that were generated in the competition for civic space. Echoes of our world now–income inequality, sustainability, sex, transportation—all of these are all embodied in this relic that has the capacity to help tell real stories of contemporary relevance, if called upon to do so. I’d love to see it exhibited, interpreted, even restored to working condition if possible: what a project that would be!

My point is that “Authenticity: Real Things, Real Stories, Real Places” is powerfully connected to now, to the things that can touch us because they shed light on the present and the future, because of the way we can make relevant links with the past. The Museum of History and Industry’s public historian, Lorraine McConaghy, once told me that MOHAI’s storage rooms are filled with dozens, perhaps scores, of the magnificent ink wells of once prominent Seattle business leaders of former times. I have the feeling that if MOHAI mounted a “100 years of Seattle inkwells” exhibit, it would not set records for attendance, but perhaps I underestimate the stories they could tell. Museums must be more than mausoleums of the great. Museums can add touch-screens, but they need to do more to reach out and touch us and share with us the stories of our shadings, our imperfections, our complexities, and our shared humanity as it is felt in the present.

I believe that heritage in our state needs more support. I believe that institutions like historical societies and museums are part of a basic education; that they are the lifeblood of civil society, civic debate, they are our memory banks. Without strong institutions telling our stories–and importantly preserving as yet un-mined and undigested story material for the future–we would be suffering from a debilitating form of cultural dementia. It requires, as you all know, great labor and creativity. I want to personally thank all of you for the work you do, for the raw material and research you provide us writers, and for the past and future that is possible because of you.

Thank you.