Thursday, 19 March 2009

Sara Levi Willis - the Magnes Museum - and the voice of empathy


Tweet Tweet
The Twitter ecology is starting to really intrigue me . I especially like the way stories can do the rounds, fade away, and then resurface again. It's like stories have sleep periods, a bit like the lovely status light on a Mac when it is on standby.

The story which prompted this little musing involves a lovely old lady, her wedding dress, a museum and a collections manager.

The dress
The fabric of the dress is the featured picture above. It picture comes from a Flickr set showing the detail on a wedding dress from Turkey which was made in the 19th century.

Sara Levi Willis.
The dress was handed down through a Jewish family who perished in the Holocaust. It then passed to the daughter, Sara Levi Willis, who first wore it when she was 18 years old on the ocean liner which brought her to America. She was married in it.

The Collections Information Manager - Magnes Museum
The story then jumps jumps to this blog post from Perian Sully the Collections Information Manager and Web Programs Strategist at the Magnes Museum.

She is entranced both by the dress and the encounter that the Museum arranged with Sara Levi Willis, now an old woman.

The whole encounter has been filmed. This isn't online, but there is a bunch of the photography on Flickr, here. Theee are also other pictures on the Museum blog. This might sound a little voyeuristic - but when you read the blog post you are reassured by the genuine empathy at play here.

The learning?
There doesn't need to be any - it's just a great story - but if I was to pick one , then the learning for me is to once again to affirm some of the topics Shelley Bernstein spoke off recently in Wellington, on how using these kinds of tools - blogs - Flickr - can really work for heritage institutions, provided the voice is personal - genuine and illustrates the power of the relationship between the object - the institution - and, in this case, the former owner.

The Voice - personal - genuine
So for me, the big takeaway - apart from the story itself - is the authenticity of the voice in the blog post. I offer a quote from a bigger block of text as an example of this .

"..... But the construction took a dim second place to the sight of this very elderly woman being reunited with this object that holds so many memories, to the most extreme joy to the greatest sorrow.

She talked about how it felt to see her gown again, and we watched as she laid her hands upon it, feeling the gold threads, surely remembering what it felt like to wear it.

She bent down to kiss it once, and I have to confess to a trained gut reaction of momentary panic (”Don’t touch!”).

But sometimes the pieces in our care become more precious and powerful when viewed and touched by their former owners, and preserving those moments is just as valuable as preserving the object itself.

It had been 23 years since she had seen it, and I am very happy that she was impressed by the care it received and the condition it was in" more


And - yep - thanks to the two Twitter sources who put me onto it - www.twitter.com/publichistorian
www.twitter.com/GettyMuseum

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