Picking up the “Unfinished Business” | Carol Ng-He

One of the most exciting moments in teaching the “Arts & Community Development” class to my undergraduate students this semester is visiting the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. Connecting students to the history and legacy of the community work by activists and art lovers Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr has always been my goal for the class. The life-long perseverance of these two women, and their whole hearted dedication to making social change, moves me every time I visit this national historic landmark.

By having my students experience the critical work Addams and Starr did in the turn of the 20th century, they can see the importance of how the art serves as a vehicle of change in a given neighborhood, particularly in the lives of inner city immigrants. Recently, in addition to the permanent exhibition on the ground floor of the museum, they have also opened a year-long showcase.  This community curated, participatory art exhibition, titled Unfinished Business: Arts Education, draws the links between the Hull-House local history of art education since the 19th century to the contemporary time.

We spend two days exploring the treasures of the museum’s exhibitions.  On the first day of our visit we focus on the forward-thinking dynamic neighborhood initiatives led by Addams and Starr. We go through the scale model of the settlement, listen to the story about what a day looked like for a fourteen-year-old resident seamstress, and then walk into the former resident receiving room with a terracotta-inspired painted wall.  Here we stop at an unusual empty octagon room hidden behind the maroon velvet curtain. This enclosed space is filled with the archival sound collection of the late19th-century Chicago, presented in a completely new way: the sounds are re-made and re-mixed in juxtaposition ranging from bird chirping, children’s giggling, typing from the antique typewriter, horseshoe clogging and more…all of which puts us back to the 19th-century South Halsted Street where the settlement used to be situated. The velvet curtain simply adds the mysterious curiosity to the experience. In this room, we are silent and listen closely to the stunning sonic landscape.

When we return to the museum on the second day, we work our way up to the second floor of the museum to see Unfinished Business: Arts Education. We make small projects at various stations in the exhibition: at the working pop-up print shop we create a postcard that can be sent to other educators and politicians in the city to urge for the support to arts education; we learn the “Tuttle Clog” folk dance on the steps drawn on the floor; and, we weave on the community loom that pays homage to the former Hull-House Labor Museum.

On this second day my students also begin to “mine” the exhibition by selecting at least three pieces for their museum guidebook class project.  Referencing artifacts and collections in the museum the students collaborate in groups of three or four to develop a guidebook that targets a specific audience, such as high schools, seniors or foreign language-speaking adults. The idea of the guidebook is to be an interactive instead of a generic overview of the museum or the biographic review of the Hull-House residents. Through their three chosen items, the students explore the contemporary connections of the social issues addressed by the Hull-House co-founders, such as immigration, childcare, public heath, and labor rights. Similar to the interactive-driven Unfinished Business exhibition, this guide can be used and played with by those targeted audience who will visit the museum to explore the issues of their collective concern.

This project allows students to pick up the “unfinished business” of arts education by re-imagining how the history has informed and transformed the way we participate in activism. This whole experience ultimately allows me and my students to re-think how we can carry on the revolutionary work of our predecessors.

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