I’m a sucker for any story that depicts a “triumph of the human spirit.” I succumb to that feeling of my throat getting tight, my lower lip trembling, eyes welling with tears as I listen to someone recount how they faced insurmountable challenge, but found the strength and support to overcome adversity. Those tales of creativity and strength and love and commitment just get me every time.
In 2009, the IMA was awarded the prestigious Medal of Honor from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. In order to offer a more personalized view of each institution receiving the award, IMLS partnered with a non-profit group called StoryCorps. If you’ve tuned into WFYI in the mornings, you may have heard some of the three minute interview segments that have been recorded by StoryCorps staff across the country.
The idea behind the StoryCorps project is to capture interviews between people—any people, anywhere—and archive them in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. This creates a firsthand account of contemporary American life, as told through the voices that make up our country. The range of topics is infinite, from tales about first loves and last moments, friendships and romances, memories of childhood and the bittersweet effects of aging.
In order to create a narrative of our own IMA history, we chose 18 people who have made an impact within the museum’s community. This group was but a small cross-section of individuals who have enriched our lives and our institution. Each person chose a companion to be their interviewer, and they came in, sat down, and started talking.
We didn’t want to stifle anyone’s creativity and dictate what the conversations should focus on, but being an art museum, we did ask that the sessions start with some account of a moment or event in the life of the interviewee in which art had a significant impact. Art was already the common thread shared by each of the 18 people who sat down to talk, so it wasn’t difficult to keep art as a central topic.
One example came from Dr. Jeffery Rothenberg and his wife, Joani. Jeff is an OB/GYN by profession but an artist by nature. He spoke of how his wife and family’s support helped him decide which role more importantly defines him.
(audio clip courtesy of Long Haul Productions and StoryCorps)
The payoff for me came each time a pair of people walked out of the recording “booth”. What I heard more than anything from these smiling and laughing pairs of friends, spouses, colleagues, mentors, and parents with their children, was that the chance to just sit and talk with one another was truly a gift.
That intimate setting gave them a chance to share things they’d never discussed before. How often do we have that opportunity in our daily lives? When was the last time you learned something new about someone to whom you’re already close?
So here is where I get a little teary-eyed, and the real value and meaning of this experience hits home. Among the people who took part in this project was Larry Hurt, a high school art teacher who had an extraordinary ability to connect with and inspire his students. Larry asked Phillip Lynam, a talented local artist and one of our IMA colleagues, to play the role of his interviewer. The two of them talked about how Larry had encouraged his students (Phillip among them) to find and freely express their talents and creativity.
Less than two weeks after they spoke with each other, Larry unexpectedly passed away. The shock of Larry’s death impacted many, many people, and his involvement throughout the Indianapolis community was made even more profound in his absence. Profound, too, was the gift of those 40 minutes that Phillip had to talk with his mentor and friend; to have a permanent record of Larry speaking about what inspired him and how he inspired others serves as a fitting farewell to a talented and beautiful person.
In our fast-paced world, we’re constantly bombarded with bits and pieces of information; rarely are we able to slow down and really listen to someone. For us, being able to welcome these people into our museum and ask them to share their stories was such a privilege. The Medal of Honor from IMLS is a great source of pride for the IMA, but for me, hearing these stories and knowing they will forever represent the heart and spirit of this museum was the real triumph. Pass the Kleenex.