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Anthropology and Museum Studies

Barbara Hammesberg Homelessness Exhibit

Barbara Hammesberg describes her internship at the CWU Museum of Culture and Environment.

During the Fall quarter of 2014, I interned at the Museum of Culture & Environment with the specific focus on exhibition design. The traveling exhibit Righteous Dopefiend: Homeless, Addiction and Poverty in Urban America,  from the Penn Museum, was installed for Winter 2015 and featured black and white photos focusing on homelessness, poverty, and addiction in San Francisco. These topics were clearly not anything the museum had broached before, but the fact that students might be able to relate, empathize, and understand the topics outweighed the controversial aspects. So the idea arose of creating a smaller exhibit that would focus on how the issues of homelessness, poverty, and addiction affected Ellensburg and the surrounding communities. Using my research and contacts within the community I helped Dr. Auslander, Dr. Amason, and Lynn Bethke write and construct exhibit text panels, and design and implement exhibit designs for the lobby wall. This supplemental community-focused exhibit engaged with the same issues that Righteous Dopefiend covered, but it was more interactive, had more statistics, and offered up the voices of people in Ellensburg that were dealing with or had dealt with homelessness, poverty, and addiction.


I was tasked with the initial job of researching these dilemmas. I went to the library, looked through many Daily Records, and found lots of articles and police blotter mentions of heroin related crimes and deaths. Dr. Amason mentioned an article that talked about small communities and the rise of heroin. After searching online, I found the Wall Street Journal article that singled out Ellensburg as one of the more significant small towns that had recently seen a rise in heroin abuse. I thought it was strange at the time to keep coming across these incidents, but the more I researched, the more common it became.
I then got in contact with Bruce Tabb, the former mayor of Ellensburg. He was able to put me in touch with Julia Karns who founded and currently runs the Needle exchange program in Ellensburg. Through meetings and discussions with her, Dr. Auslander, and Dr. Barlow, we learned how much heroin was affecting Ellensburg. One of the facts that stuck out to me the most was when she mentioned that the numbers at the needle exchange had been low during the summer, but as soon as school started, the numbers climbed. We also got in touch with the Central Student Medical & Mental Health Counseling Clinic. The counselors were able to tell us that heroin was indeed an issue that they came across with students.  Another subject that came up amongst students was the unspoken stigma of homelessness. They said that to their surprise, many students opened up to them and revealed that they were couch surfing or did not have a permanent home. This was the start of my research into the development of homelessness in Ellensburg.


Using Bruce Tabb as a resource again, I got in touch with Nancy Goodloe who heads the county’s Homelessness and Affordable Housing Committee. She informed me that an emergency shelter had recently been set-up at three churches in the community. The person who was organizing it was Pastor Don Green at First Christian Church. Dr. Auslander and I met with him to talk about what the goals, vision, and realities of the cold weather shelter were. He mentioned that since the city had not set up housing or shelters for the homeless, he felt the religious community had a responsibility to step up. Along with First Christian church, the United Methodist and First Lutheran offered space and volunteers to run the shelter from about October to February. Dr. Auslander, Dr, Amason, Liz Seeyle, Mark Hammersberg and I all volunteered at the shelter. Just by being able to see the same people once or twice a week was beneficial because we got to a level of trust with each other and were able to share our stories. One of the things that was amazing was how adamant they all were about taking responsibility for their life, not one of them blamed others for their current situation. Other members of the community stepped forward to share their perspectives on homelessness. Expressive arts therapist Nan Doolittle and her intern Maggie Bauermeister were key in obtaining interviews with Jack Frost and Xander McCurry. One thing that was very important to them was to distinguish that not all homeless people were addicts and visa versa.

Using their input, we structured the wall exhibit explicitly to express that division. On one end of the wall was homelessness and on the other was heroin. The middle section was dedicated to the unique voices of the community that contained quotes from Jack Frost, Xaxier Cavesos, and Xander McCurry. One of my favorite quotes was “I woke up with a slug on my face.” This described perfectly how a person’s life can seem perfect one second and the next they could be living outside in the outskirts of Ellensburg and dealing with slugs. I think this section of the exhibit was most impactful for students because the voices of actual people helped start the dialogue on tough issues in Righteous Dopefiend, and made it more relatable. The quote that “Starbucks gives free water” was another one that stood out to students because it made them think about how something so basic as water could become a survival issue. Many students who came to the exhibit had reactions ranging from “wow, that was really powerful”, “I feel so grateful” to “Why is this in a museum?” “Why is this important?” These questions made me realize that education plans are a great way for students to see another viewpoint and to really have time to think about what they are seeing in a museum. While tours are a helpful way to interpret, they cannot reach the students in the same way lesson plans can.

 

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