Community Conversations: State of the Oyster

This blog post was contributed by Robert Forloney, St. Michaels

As the Director of the Center for Chesapeake Studies (CCS) at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (CBMM) I have been involved with the Maryland Humanities Council’s (MHC) Practicing Democracy initiative’s Let’s Be Shore project initiative in a variety of ways over the past year.

Among other roles, I have had the pleasure to serve as a local community leader to assist with the planning  of public dialogues  and participated in a forum at the Talbot County Free Library as part of the Chesapeake Film Festival.   We also partnered with Let’s Be Shore as part of our annual Chesapeake Folk Festival by providing a site for the Let’s Be Shore sharing station as well as hosting a panel discussion with a diverse audience.  These MHC programs tie in very closely to the work that the Center for Chesapeake Studies is now undertaking with regard to public discussion and outreach to new audiences.

State of the Oyster, the first series in CCS’s new initiative titled Community Conversations, will focus on the status of the oyster fishery and its past, present, and future significance to different Bay communities.  Scheduled for four Sunday afternoons in late winter 2013, these programs will pose the question of whether and how oyster production can continue as a backbone of the region’s culture and economy. While biological dimensions of the “oyster question” will be addressed, the primary focus will be on the cultural and social dynamics of this issue. One of the most significant goals of the project is to host public forums where stakeholders holding different, and in some cases conflicting, perspectives can have meaningful conversations.  The hope is to use the formal presentations as a catalyst for open and civil dialogue about topics important to the community as a whole.   A “Civic Engagement” grant from The Maryland Humanities Council provided funding for this innovative project which will also include an art exhibition, original video production and new research as part of the overall program.

Each session will examine a particular aspect of this complicated topic: the social history of Chesapeake oyster production and conservation; the causes of the oyster crash; the traditions, expertise, and perspectives of watermen; and the possibilities and consequences for addressing the imperiled state of oystering. Programs will include presentations by historians and scientists as well as oyster harvesters and processors followed by , questions and comments from the audience and mediated group discussions between the presenters and the public. Throughout the duration of this project, photographs and paintings depicting the daily activities of watermen will be on display and will provide a stimulus for reflection and conversation.  Video clips of watermen engaged in activities such as tonging, the inner workings of processing plants, and scientists engaged in actual field work will be shown at the beginning of each program in order to provide context for the topics discussed.
In order to address the various problems caused by the decline in the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population in depth, we have divided this program into four, separate sessions:

  • Sunday, February 24th, 2pm-4pm:We will focus on the social history of oyster production and conservation during “Oysters and People” in order to address the long-term interactions between oysters and the region’s human inhabitants. This panel will include a historian, a folklorist, and an oyster biologist.
  • Sunday, March 3rd , 4pm-6pm: “How Did We Get Here?” will debate the various factors that have contributed to the decline of the Chesapeake oyster populations and will include showing excerpts from the SeaGrant film, “Who Killed Crassostrea Virginica,” as well as presentations by researchers and watermen.
  • Sunday, March 10th, 2pm-4pm: This panel consists of watermen and women who will present their experience-based perspectives on the history and future of Chesapeake oystering. During “Watermen: Traditions and Perspectives,”  participants will hear directly from these men and women what it is like to make a living under today’s difficult circumstances, the changes that have seen in their lifetimes, and their ideas about the future of the industry.
  • Sunday, March 17th, 2pm-4pm: This session is called “State of the Oyster: Possibilities and Consequences.”  A panel of watermen, oyster researchers, and oyster farmers will discuss the future. This includes aquaculture, reclaiming shell and moving seed, disease research and mitigation, and sanctuaries. The focus of this final session will be on how the cultural worlds within which watermen are enmeshed can be part of each of these proposed solutions.

While we recognize that no one program can settle these questions once and for all, our goal is to use a humanities-based, dialogue-centered approach to encourage respectful engagement, facilitate listening, and generate better public understanding.  The idea is to engage with others who think, feel, and believe differently.  Please join us as we look beneath the surface of these complex issues.

State of the Oyster programs are open to all free of charge.  For more information please visit:  www.cbmm.org  

Robert Forloney
Director of the Center of Chesapeake Studies
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

Robert Forloney

Robert Forloney

Robert Forloney is currently the Director of the Center of Chesapeake Studies at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in Saint Michaels.  He has worked in the field a variety of ways over the past fifteen years as a teacher for the New York City Museum School as well as an educator, administrator and consultant at institutions such as the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of New York, the Morgan Library, American Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Modern Art and the South Street Seaport Museum.  Whether working at an art institution or a history museum, Robert attempts to make objects and images accessible to audiences through facilitating conversations as well as utilizing experiential learning techniques.

About MD Humanities Council

LetsBeShore is a project of the Maryland Humanities Council's Practicing Democracy program, bringing together multiple perspectives for passionate and respectful dialogue about land use and agriculture and their effect on water quality along Maryland's Eastern Shore.
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