SALT LAKE CITY — What do street dancing, petroglyphs, newspaper photographs, zines, woven baskets and a selfie booth have in common?
As Josh Perkins, a local hip-hop dancer and executive director of the nonprofit organization known as the Bboy Federation, recently told the Deseret News, “These are our things. Stories and history and context that are produced from (Utah.)”
These items and others are part of a new exhibition at the Utah State Capitol, titled “Who Tells Your Story?” And according to its curator, Emily Johnson, the answer to that question is continually evolving.
“Most people are documenting their lives through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or whatever social media outlet is your favorite,” Johnson said. “That’s how people now are telling the stories of their lives.”
But as the exhibit shows, that hasn’t always been the case.
Johnson, the museum services specialist for the Division of Arts and Museums in the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts, explained that the items in the exhibition constitute just some of the ways that people here in Utah have been telling and recording their histories over the years.
The exhibition is one element of the New Nation Project managed by the Department of Heritage and Arts, which was, in part, inspired by the much-anticipated arrival of the Broadway hit musical “Hamilton” in Salt Lake City.
Knowing that not everyone who may want to attend the musical during its Utah run will have the opportunity, Johnson said the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts planned this exhibition as a way for people to feel involved in the excitement surrounding the musical and “be engaged with learning about this history.”
The exhibition aims to show that the history of Utah is as unique and exciting as the history of the nation, highlighting some of the many ways people can record history and the different perspectives found outside of typical historical records such as journals and letters.
Although the exhibition is not directly tied to "Hamilton," Johnson admitted that, for her, the display and its themes were inspired by a Hamilton — just not the most famous Hamilton.
“I started thinking about the archives and Eliza Hamilton’s work to preserve Alexander Hamilton’s legacy, but how she herself is completely absent from that same legacy,” Johnson said. “And I thought, who else is missing? And what other kinds of ways are we telling stories that don’t end up in an archive?”
From there, Johnson dug into the various ways that people are “talking about their lives” and leveled the playing field by putting the different methods together in one space.
“We’re going to talk about them all kind of in the same way, in the same space,” Johnson said.
So while the exhibition does feature journals, letters and other typical historical documents, Johnson said "Who Tells Our Stories?" is meant to offer an “expansive view of what (history) can mean.”
“There are so many other ways that people are choosing to (record history),” she said.
A couple of those ways are through dance and video, both of which are included in the exhibition. An interactive video shows a performance of street dancers moving through the history of hip-hop culture. Provided by Perkins and the Bboy Federation, the video was “a bit of a trick” to put together, Perkins said.
“I’m showing (people) something entertaining and visually appealing," Perkins said, "but we’re also trying to provide education and context at the same time.
“If you can provide context and meaning to the things that are going on, it helps people who are unfamiliar with it kind of understand it, just like any culture. Any culture externally can look very weird and uncomfortable until you contextually understand what’s happening in it.”
And that is what Johnson hopes this exhibition does: provide visitors with context for Utah's diverse histories. As Johnson explained it, she went into the project trying to find a diversity of objects to show Utah's stories and “ended up with a huge diversity of people.”
Whether visitors are interested in a Hmong weaving or a handwritten land-planning journal with the word Hogle misspelled, Johnson said, “Everyone finds something in the exhibit that is cool for them. People see themselves in a lot of different places in the exhibit, which was exactly the point.”
If you go …
What: “Who Tells Your Story?”
When: Through June 29
Where: Utah State Capitol, 350 N. State, 4th floor
How much: Free