Storytelling, one of the most powerful ways to educate and inspire others, is central to the National Museum of Public Housing’s mission as the nation’s premier cultural institution dedicated to the interpretation and contextualization of the experience of public housing in our country.
To better document and amplify the stories it records, the Chicago-based museum recently added Liú Chen as Oral History Archive Manager.
Research shows that “stories stick,” sparking knowledge, insights and empathy that linger far beyond the stories themselves. They also help listeners see situations from different perspectives and can help change attitudes, behaviors and beliefs.
“The history of social housing in this country is often riddled with stereotypes and misconceptions,” said Lisa Yun Lee, executive director of the museum. “Our goal at NPHM is to change the narrative while bringing attention to housing insecurity and promoting everyone’s right to have a place to call home.
The physical structure of the museum is currently under development and will be an adaptive reuse of the last remaining building of the former Jane Addams Houses on Chicago’s Near West Side. Once complete, visitors will experience fascinating and historically significant exhibits and engage with the provocative ideas of internationally acclaimed contemporary artists.
In 2007, NPHM began recording stories for its archive, which now contains over 150 recordings of public housing experiences that date back to the 1930s, telling residents’ stories in their own words. NPHM’s digital archive will be made widely available to the public starting this summer, with approximately 15 linked records on its website. Additionally, a permanent oral history exhibit is planned as part of the interactive design of the museum’s new home, when completed, at 1306 W Taylor St.
“The more I learned about NPHM, the more excited I became to be part of this important company,” Chen said. “It’s a huge and potentially daunting project, but I know I can help keep the museum grounded, rooted and accountable to the people we want to serve.”
Chen is deeply committed to using storytelling to foster understanding, build connections, and spark change. A graduate of Columbia University’s master’s program in oral history, the first program of its kind in the United States, Chen’s knowledge is at the forefront of this field.
NPHM’s archives and body of oral history consist of a collection of interviews with people across the country who have lived in public housing, a pioneering effort recorded by a diverse group of individuals trained to to be oral historians by the museum. Numerous interviews were conducted with residents of public housing estates in Chicago and New York; part of Chen’s mission is to broaden the reach and increase the archive to include oral histories of public housing residents nationwide.
Chen will also manage the organization and delivery of audio stories and work with the museum’s programming team to incorporate oral histories into exhibitions and other curations for the public.
With a $100,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation that will fund the project for two years, the museum plans to relaunch its Oral History Corps training program that serves public housing residents and community organizers, after a two-year hiatus. imposed by the pandemic. NPHM wishes to train people who have encountered barriers to access more formal education in oral history and storytelling.
“We are all story tellers and listeners. It’s part of the human experience,” Chen said. “But most marginalized voices are not well documented in formalized written records. This includes the voices of public housing residents. Collecting and sharing oral histories offers an opportunity to change the narrative.”
Chen’s experience and training as an oral historian will inform their work at NPHM. In addition to his master’s degree from Columbia University, Chen was responsible for the Voices Lifted Oral History Project at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore.
“I couldn’t imagine a better partner in this crucial mission than Liú,” Lee said. “At NPHM, we try to create space for public housing residents, past and present, to tell their stories and be heard, and Liú has a deep understanding of the mechanics, power and meaning of oral histories. “