Friday, December 14, 2007

An Unfortunate Departure

Rare is the museum educator so inspiring that you want to make a movie about her, but that's the case with Cynthia Copeland. In 1996, when "Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York" was at the New-York Historical Society, I found her work with young people so impressive that I made a documentary short about her. So it baffles me to learn that on Monday the Historical Society fired her.

Cynthia doesn't want to discuss the issue and Laura Washington, Vice President for Communications at the Society, says "We don't make any comments on our personnel matters." If that leaves the situation murky, it is still absolutely clear to me that Cynthia has extraordinary talent for working with museum exhibits to teach kids about the past.

Here's the backstory. As the co-curator of "Metropolitan Lives" with Rebecca Zurier, I was fascinated by the way some visitors to the show connected to it through their family history. People would pause in front of a painting of a tenement scene, pull themselves up a little taller, and say something like, "My mother lived on the Lower East Side" with all the pride that some Americans reserve for "My great-great grandfather was at Gettysburg."

I resolved to document this phenomenon and make a short movie about it. I hired the sharp-eyed cameraman Peter Pearse, identified a senior guide at the Society, and told him to spend the day shooting him. But when Peter spotted Cynthia at work, he knew she was the real story of the day.

Peter's camerawork captured Cynthia doing something extraordinary, something far more important than I'd ever imagined as the subject of the film: talking with Black and Hispanic kids from the Bronx of 1996 about the New York of the early 1900s in ways that spanned decades and ethnic differences.

Starting with what the kids know--the streets of New York--she got them thinking about the Ashcan artists, city life, and the interplay of past and present. Months later, one of the boys who met with her told me fondly, "She put the pictures in our heads." The resulting film, which would have been inconceivable without Cynthia's work as its centerpiece, was honored by the National Educational Media Network and went into distribution with Carousel Film and Video.

At the Society, Cynthia went on to work on projects involving Seneca Village, slavery, and the American Revolution. She became a noticeable presence at history conferences and was a co-curator of the Society's "Legacies: Contemporary Artists Reflect on Slavery."

When I visited "Legacies" with my wife and daughter, Cynthia showed us around the exhibit. I still count that trip as one of the best history lessons my daughter will ever receive.

Given the hush about Cynthia's exit, I can't say anything more about her departure and what it means. (Although if anyone else knows anything, I'd be interested to hear it.)

But this much I know: Cynthia Copeland set a great standard for museums and museum educators. I hope it's not too long before she's up and working again, showing us all what great teaching about history can be.

No comments: