Mary, age 95, a former opera singer and world traveler, currently a resident of Golden Living Center in Gloucester, enters the Cape Ann Museum (CAM) on a summer Tuesday morning. Along with Annie, Richie, two staff from Golden Living, and three museum program facilitators, she takes a spot in front of the Gail Halaban photograph, Hopper Redux: Cemetery…” based on an Edward Hopper painting. A golden light casts a glow not only on the foreground with its rows of cemetery stones, but also the windows of the neighboring homes. To most, this photograph is simply a reflection of any town anywhere in the world, but not to the seniors from Golden Living, who search for pigments of the past and imbue the scene with philosophical viewpoints. Mary and the other participants are transformed from anonymous nursing home “patients” to unique individuals who bring strong memories and rich perceptions to the discussion of the piece.
Mary makes a connection to the past when she remarks, “Rare place to see…stones and homes…Wondering who is in there? You would go through your whole life and never see….now the scene is natural- life and death.”
Linda Koby, Golden Living Activity Director, reacts by saying, “Our experience here today is why this program works so amazingly well – this illustrates how this program is remarkable. The cemetery – I would look and walk away but we stopped to look and share and we stayed. “
This scenario is just a small glimpse of what can occur when a group of local, inquisitive seniors look at a landscape photograph or painting with a new way of seeing and a different purpose. Thanks to a generous grant from Mass Humanities, the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester is exploring the Power of Place through the CAM Connections program, a first-of- its kind museum program for underserved seniors in the local area.
The purpose of this program is to open the doors of the museum and reach out, bring people together who live in area nursing homes and attend day centers, and view landscapes from the collection in the quiet of the museum space. First, the project director and museum staff bring reproductions of landscapes to the care setting, touching those who are unable for various reasons to leave their home. We call these focus groups. Next, tours and conversations will continue at the museum until October when the museum closes for renovation. Throughout the winter months, continuous visits at the care facilities conducted by museum staff will assist participants in creatively responding to what they have seen via narrative writing, poetry and visual artistic expression.
This past year, CAM Connections had many positive experiences. When I asked the participants what it felt like to be in the museum, Annie, born and raised in Gloucester, replied, “Makes me feel happy…. I love art. I went to art school….I like hearing others, what the viewer sees and emotionally responds to…It brings me back…. It's our neighborhood."
Over one hundred seniors have participated in focus groups, tours and insightful discussion. Museum guides are increasingly inspired to participate in the reciprocal nature of the experience. Conversations are rich with personal history and narratives from life on Cape Ann. Due to its success and the generosity of the Mass Humanities grant, the program will continue until June of 2014.
The essential question of the endeavor is, How can the humanities play an essential role in giving voice to the historical narratives of seniors, improving sense of self, health and well being, and overall quality of life through reconnection to local art history? Richie, former fish cutter and lifelong Gloucester resident, gives a cogent response, “I lived here all my life and have never been to the Museum before.”
Photo: Poplar Street Cemetery, 2013, by Gail Albert Halaban (b.1970) Archival pigment print mounted to plexiglass, printed under the direct supervision of the photographer, 2013. Print number 1 from an edition of 5. Collection of the Cape Ann Museum; purchased with funds from the Kanter Kallman Foundation, 2013.