History Truck is mapping Chinatown memories

 Erin Bernard, creator of the history truck displays tags Chinatown residents created to tell their personal stories.(Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Erin Bernard, creator of the history truck displays tags Chinatown residents created to tell their personal stories.(Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

A Philadelphia history project is at work collecting material from residents of Chinatown for an exhibit about that neighborhood’s past and present. A preview is now on display in Space 1026, a Chinatown artist space.

The Philadelphia Public History Truck is an old ice cream truck that roams through neighborhoods in the city, soliciting stories from residents. It’s currently looking into immigration and homelessness in Chinatown, and using a variety of techniques to solicit responses from the public.

The group is asking people to draw a 3-panel comic about how they came to be in the neighborhood. Those comics, hand drawn on what look like large luggage tags, are hung from fish netting, resulting in a ceiling of dangling stories.

It was designed by a group led by Bree Logsdon, a graduate student at the University of the Arts’ department of museum exhibition and design who worked with local high school students on the design. She said the concept still needs some tweaking.

“Some people just wrote ‘I got on the bus and came here.’ That’s not what we were looking for,” said Logsdon.

Other prototypes include recorded dialogues whose participants are issued rewards from a spinning wheel.  There’s also a memory map residents use to pin site-specific memories to specific locations in the neighborhood. The map prototype was originally designed to record participants with an iPad, but the designers learned most people are skittish of being recorded.

All of the Philadelphia History Truck’s interactive prototypes — warts and all — are on display at Space 1026, a building of artist studios and exhibit gallery. It has been in Chinatown for 18 years and is one of the oldest collectives in the city.  It has never done an event focused on its own neighborhood.

“Sometimes we don’t get the interaction we’d like, being in Chinatown and having our neighbors coming into the space,” said 1026 member artist Tuesday Kay. “This is an opportunity to have not just artists and friends of artists, but actual people who live in the neighborhood to come in and see the space.”

The history truck concept was created two years ago by Erin Bernard, an historian then in grad school at Temple University, striving to bring artistry into her field. She taught a class last fall at UArts about exhibition design, and pushed her students to create real-world prototypes to be used by the History Truck.

“There’s no reason why historian can’t think visually, and no reason why artists can’t do research the way historians do,” said Bernard. “A lot of people are already doing that, but they haven’t figured out, if we work together, what is possible?”

During the run of the show at Space 1026, a potluck dinner will be held to attract neighbors inside, where they will be encouraged to talk about the history of the neighborhood.

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