Documenting local histories: Mass Humanities grant will help PVMA produce new audio project and expand public outreach

PVMA Curator and Assistant Director Ray Radigan stands in the newly refurbished Military Gallery. As part of a grant partnership between Mass Humanities, New England Public Media and the Public Radio Exhange, the museum is preparing to produce an audio documentary pilot about the area’s history over the next few months.

PVMA Curator and Assistant Director Ray Radigan stands in the newly refurbished Military Gallery. As part of a grant partnership between Mass Humanities, New England Public Media and the Public Radio Exhange, the museum is preparing to produce an audio documentary pilot about the area’s history over the next few months. STAFF GRAPHIC/CHRIS LARABEE

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 12-01-2023 11:52 AM

With two new programs, the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA) is ready to take the plunge into a new medium with the help of Mass Humanities grant, while also expanding on its current offerings with a wide-ranging public outreach program.

Also on the receiving end of the Mass Humanities grant is Local Access to Valley Arts, which will be producing an audio documentary pilot on how climate change is affecting the local agriculture scene.

Audio storytelling

As part of a grant partnership between Mass Humanities, New England Public Media (NEPM) and the Public Radio Exhange (PRX), the museum is preparing to produce an audio documentary pilot about the area’s history over the next few months.

Using free training, NEPM’s facilities and a production stipend, PVMA Curator Ray Radigan said they will be taking objects from their collection and interpreting their stories through audio recordings, with the main focus being the 1704 raid on Deerfield.

“Both because that’s our most famous story and we have the anniversary coming up with the raid being on leap day,” Radigan said of the raid’s 2024 anniversary approaching next year. “We’re working to learn the skills of audio storytelling, both for the conceptual side and how we can best use that in the history work we do.”

Radigan envisions himself and one of the curatorial assistants acting as the hosts of the pilot and introducing events and items to listeners before bringing on subject experts and scholars to further discuss the topic.

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Audio storytelling is something Radigan and other museum staff have considered in the past, but the high-barrier for entry — equipment, time investment and effort — compared to the potential benefits, as well as the “saturated” podcast market have kept them away.

With this program, however, the museum has a chance to dive into the world of audio storytelling and share these new perspectives with fewer risks than PVMA would face on its own, which is exactly what Mass Humanities is trying to do.

“Storytelling builds a sense of belonging and connection for residents seeking to better understand our past and meet our contemporary challenges,” said Brian Boyles, Mass Humanities executive director. “Our partnership with PRX and NEPM merges their expertise and platforms with the wisdom, research, and grassroots outreach of humanities organizations in western Massachusetts. In a time of polarization and miscommunication, we look forward to collaborating to amplify the courageous work of these truth seekers.”

At the LAVA Center in Greenfield, Humanities Coordinator Matthew Barlow said their focus will be on the climate crisis and how it affects “farmers, gardeners and consumers.”

“We’re looking at the impact on the food chain,” Barlow, who also serves as the president of Just Roots’ board of directors, said. “We sustained pretty substantial damage during the flash floods and you walk into the grocery store and prices have gone up drastically. It all came together.”

In recent weeks, Barlow said they’ve spoken to customers outside of Foster’s Supermarket to ask them if they’ve noticed any changes in their shopping habits — many said produce has gotten more expensive — and farmers have told them its harder to plan for the season when the weather varies so much from year to year.

The production of the audio documentary pilot coincides with a crowd-sourced photo exhibit at the arts space, which features pictures of July’s storm damage and other climate change impacts taken by the community.

If they expand beyond the pilot, Barlow envisions digging deeper into local gardening habits, as many people “garden in part to counter the costs at the grocery stores.”

New Roots in River Banks at PVMA

At the same time, PVMA was also awarded a separate grant from Mass Humanities’ Expand Massachusetts Stories program, which focuses on projects that share narratives from underrepresented communities.

With the grant, the museum will launch “New Roots in River Banks: Contributions of Polish/Eastern European Immigrants to the Connecticut River Valley,” which will bring a series of free public discussions, exhibits, educational programs, oral histories and other resources around the topic of European immigrants in the region.

In all, the project will illustrate immigration history, human geography and the shifting cultural landscape as these populations came to the U.S. 

The project’s scholars will be Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute associate and historian Patrice Dabowski, who will give a presentation on Poland from 1880 to 1920, and University of Massachusetts Lowell professor Robert Forrant, who will discuss 19th- and 20th-century labor, industries and immigration histories.

Other topics will include Chicopee’s Polish immigrants; culture and history; the role of the church; as well as traditions and food.

The launch of this program coincides with October’s revival of the Eastern European Heritage Festival, which was held on Oct. 14 and 15 and was very successful, according to Radigan.

Radigan said this sort of project is continuing PVMA’s goal of expanding the lens of Deerfield’s history, which has been done in recent years, as they put emphasis on both the Indigenous and Black histories of Deerfield and the region.

“We’re looking to tell complete stories from multiple perspectives,” Radigan said, underlining recent efforts made by the museum. “That is a major focus going forward.”

To share these sorts of stories, PVMA will be hosting free events at the museum in Deerfield, Turners Falls’ Great Falls Discovery Center, Holyoke’s Heritage Park, the Polish Center of Discovery and Learning in Chicopee and the Chicopee Public Library.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.