Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Hello Bordello: Transformative Learning through Contesting the Master Narrative of the Cathouse

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Hello Bordello: Transformative Learning through Contesting the Master Narrative of the Cathouse

Article excerpt

Fort Smith, Arkansas is a self-proclaimed Old West town. The city of approximately 86,000 has a heritage tourism industry that includes Victorian house museums, a trolley museum, and the gallows and courtroom of "hanging judge" Isaac C. Parker. A unique attraction is Miss Laura's Social Club--a restored Victorian brothel that serves as the Visitor Center for Fort Smith. Part house museum and part marketing tool, Miss Laura's tells the story of madams Laura Ziegler and Bertha Gale Dean and the bordello they ran from the 1890s through the 1940s.

The Fort Smith Visitor Center at Miss Laura's provides a window into the ways in which the elite members of a society attempt to control the culture of that society:

It is one thing to consider that culture is central to understanding human activity. It is quite another to consider the ways in which elites attempt to control cultural processes and means of production, which raises the question, Who has the power and authority over the processes by which culture is produced? (Guy, 1999, p. 8)

Cultural institutions such as museums, parks, and zoos are potential sites for adult education that provide "master narratives of adult identity, both individual and collective" (Sandlin, Wright, & Clark, 2013, p. 7). These institutions are places of "cognitive change", places with a unique narrative and context, and places that have a contested narrative (Taylor, 2010, p. 6). Cultural institutions--particularly sites of heritage tourism--reflect the values and power structures of the communities in which they exist (Sandlin et al., 2013; Taylor, 2010). The narratives told through these sites reinforce existing power structures through the stories of the dominant culture.

As adult educators we are interested in how learners construct meaning from their experiences of cultural institutions. We fear that adults take the narratives they hear through cultural institutions at face value. We are also concerned with the responsibilities of those working in and creating cultural institutions to reflect the experiences of marginalized groups in the master narratives of those sites.

While we initially focused on Miss Laura's as a site of adult education, our original informal learning case study revealed a master narrative of prostitution that elicited visceral negative reactions from us both. Through writing about the study, we explored the hegemonic master narrative that emerged and examined our own feminist perspectives toward that narrative; the study of the Victorian bordello has evolved into reflective self-portrait of the researchers. The purpose of this qualitative narrative study was to critically examine the master narrative of Miss Laura's Social Club as told through the exhibits and the stories told by docents. The overarching research question is: what is the master narrative of Miss Laura's Social Club? Additional questions guiding the study are:

* Whose values are reflected in the master narrative?

* What did we learn from our own negative reactions to the narrative?

* How were we transformed by our experience of studying the site?

By examining the influence of this particular cultural institution on our own lives, we hope to illuminate a larger issue for adult educators, the curators and staff of museums, and adult learners. What are the implications for adult learners who are poor and marginalized when they are inundated with messages from the dominant culture? As Guy (1999) said, "the possibility of meaningful change in the lives of learners from marginalized cultures is diminished. Change cannot be achieved because these learners continue to operate within the cultural norms, values, and traditions of a dominant culture" (p. 8).

Literature Review

Cultural Institutions, House Museums, and Heritage Tourism

Museums are cultural institutions which provide a master narrative of a society; the exhibits of a museum influence the narrative by decisions as simple as which objects to include or exclude (Taylor, 2010). …

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