From Discourse 6
What is it about kites that encourages innovation? Or perhaps, what is it about innovative and creative people that draws them to kites?
Part of the answer to these questions lies in the archives of the World Kite Museum (WKM), in Long Beach, Washington. Director Kay Buesing and volunteer Patti Gibbons know better than anyone where these answers can be found – through the stories of the WKM Oral History Program. By recording and then disseminating the oral reminiscences of people from the international kiting community – mostly fliers, builders, and organizers – this program helps preserve, celebrate, and broaden recognition of kiting’s rich social and cultural history.
Oral history is often thought of as serving museums and their public by providing research archives full of multilayered material. However, due to the nature of how oral history engages the museum community during the process of interviewing and dialog, it is just as much about the people involved as it is about the subject matter of their stories. Therefore, it is important to start this story from the beginning, with Kay and Jim Buesing.
KAY AND JIM BUESING
Kay Buesing grew up in Wisconsin, and as a child, flew kites every March. With degrees in English, Theater, and Education Administration, Kay worked as a school teacher for 30 years. Kay and her husband Jim had a long tradition of giving each other toys for Christmas. One year, Kay decided to give Jim a two-line SpyroGyro and, unbeknownst to them at the time, it became the catalyst for forming lives devoted to kite flying and promoting kiting in the world.
The Buesings started visiting kite shops in Seattle and Portland, and in the process of meeting the people who ran those shops, the horizons of kiting opened considerably. Kay recalled from the early years, “a favorite was a Nantucket Kiteman cotton star, a flexifoil, and I could always fly deltas.” She then attended a kite-making workshop in 1983 where she labored over her first Cody kite. It wasn’t long until Kay and Jim helped open the first kite shop in Long Beach. They were still both working full time, but kiting on Long Beach was becoming increasingly renowned and their commitments began to shift.
The combination of a growing interest in kiting and a home in Long Beach found Kay engaged in the first Washington State International Kite Festival (WSIKF) in 1982. “I was hooked,” she said. “The people, the beautiful kites, the outdoors were wonderful. That year I did a little of everything, spent morning to night on the beach.” The next year Kay joined the WSIKF planning committee, and for the next ten years was either the coordinator or the chair of the committee.
Over time, Jim became one of the best long- line launchers while Kay organized multiple successful WSIKF weeks. Both found such a deep love for kites and the kiting community that in 1987 they founded the World Kite Museum and Hall of Fame, where Kay has been the volunteer Director for the past 22 years.
THE WORLD KITE MUSEUM
What started out as an offbeat idea became a successful institution with the world’s largest public collection of Japanese kites outside of Japan (the 300-kite Checkley Collection), as well as host to the Kiting Hall of Fame.
“What about a kite museum?” said Jim’s friend Lawrence Lessard (who was full of crazy ideas and said it half-jokingly). Jim took the notion seriously. He set out to acquire space for exhibits and a collection, and in 1987 found a small house in Long Beach to accommodate a small operation. Thus WKM was born.
The good idea caught on and very quickly WKM began to grow out of its space. The museum decided to try to build a new museum on State Park land, but capital funds were hard to come by and the deal fell through. In 2004, WKM bought a renovated fitness center and currently calls this space home. It is conveniently located only a couple of blocks from the famous beach, as well as new timeshare condos – which has been a boon to the museum’s visitorship over the last year.
WKM hosts kite making workshops and free school programs, providing opportunities for designing, building, and flying kites, particularly around Asian New Year celebrations. The biggest event of the year for the museum is WSIKF and the annual auction, held on the same weekend. The kite festival began as a Long Beach Merchant’s Association event and has over the years moved into the realm of the museum, which aims to continue increasing its responsibility for the festival in the future. The first WSIKF had only seven participants and an Edmonds College experimental kite flying team. This past summer, 400 registered fliers and hundreds of spectators from all over the world descended upon Long Beach, making it one of the most prominent kite festival in the US.
The museum now has about 400 members, 15 key volunteers (not including the Board), and one paid full-time administrative employee. Kay hopes to soon have the ability to hire a Development Director, who would fundraise to hire a new Executive Director. After 22 years of daily devotion to WKM’s operations, Kay indicates that she would love to see new leadership in the museum soon.
GETTING THE ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM STARTED
“Oral history gives history back to the people in their own words. And in giving a past, it also helps them towards a future of their own making.”
– Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past
Since WKM is about, and run by, members of the kite community, it is an ideal place to integrate a community-based oral history program. Over the years, Kay had attended several museum conferences, where she first learned about oral history. She decided to seek an intern to start the program in the summer of 1995. Patti Gibbons, from the University of Washington’s Museology Graduate Program in Seattle, agreed and found herself immersed in the kiting world.
Kay had conducted three interviews to test the waters, so there was a jumping-off point for Patti to begin. The initial goals of the project were three-fold: to recruit volunteers in diverse regions of the country, perhaps even abroad, to record local kiting and kite personalities, and to tell the story of organized kiting. Patti spent the first part of her summer “reading every book on the shelf” to learn as much about kites as possible, while Kay compiled a list of names for narrators. Patti recorded some interviews at WSIKF that year as well as traveled to the Berkeley Kite Festival and to Monterey to capture even more stories.
Patti interviewed approximately twenty of the narrators represented in the WKM archive, of which there are now more than 70. As she recalls, there was a sense of urgency to record oral histories from kiters that were seminal to the art and sport, but were retiring and aged. Back at school after her first summer at Long Beach, Patti decided to take on the project as her Master’s thesis work and soon developed a set of protocol for WKM based on oral history best practices. She continued interviewing in the Seattle area and after graduating from the museology program returned to the museum to continue the work. Though she has since moved back to her hometown of Chicago, she is still involved in the program by writing down kiters’ stories for the world to share.
“VOICES FROM THE VAULT”
Patti writes for the quarterly article series, “Voices from the Vault,” in Kiting magazine. In 2002, she sent her first pieces to then- publisher Mike Gillard, who featured her story about Bob Price in the Spring 2003 issue. She recently drew oral histories from Masaaki Modegi and George Ham for articles in the Summer 2008 and Spring 2009 issues, respectively. About her writing, Patti says, “I try to create a nice, fun portrait of the fliers and hit upon their hallmarks and overall contributions to organized kiting using pretty much just the information from their oral history interview. I also like to shine light on a sampling of the fliers’ quirky or whimsical sides because I think it helps make their personal stories a little more colorful and sweet.”
ANALYZING PROGRAM DETAILS
Patti’s work developing materials for the WKM oral history program paid off, since the museum is still using and following her guidelines today. “This collection is the world’s only oral history collection that focuses exclusively on kites.” This statement, made in WKM’s Oral History Manual, was true in 1993, and it is most likely still true today. However, there are multiple kiting organizations and kite museums around the world, eight in Japan alone, and whether or not they have started oral history projects in their own countries is unknown.
Scenes from the international kite world:
The Oral History Manual also notes that the prominence of the narrator is important when selecting who will participate in the program. It begs the question, what is “prominence?”
History scholar Jean Gandesbery writes, “Just as formal history illuminates the contexts of well-known historical events and circumstances, oral history, with its emphasis on personal statement, illuminates and lends integrity to ‘ordinary’ lives,” which we often find revealed as quite extraordinary after all. The relativity of “prominence” is certainly illuminated by WKM’s oral history program in that if you asked the next person walking down the street who Stormy Weathers was, they would probably look at you like you were crazy. On the other hand, many would know the name of the late Francis Rogallo, inventor of the Rogallo wing, a precursor to the hang glider. This is the beauty of oral history. It is an equalizer, honoring each person who chooses to share a bit of themselves for the recording.
Kay noted that for WKM, focusing on prominence gave the program more visibility and allowed the archives to be used for publications since the names were recognizable in the kiting community. The level of prominence of the narrator is not always on the national or international level, but is sometimes more regional or even localized to the Long Beach area, particularly for those who have been involved in the WSIKF. Carol Knopski and Tom Sisson are examples.
Collecting the history of the festival is good practice for the museum, but also holds personal significance for Kay, since she was a part of the organizing committee from the very first year.
Kay wants to continue to honor those locals who have made the festival happen, but also wants to continue expanding the program to include more international kite fliers. She also wants to revisit interviews, such as Tal Streeter, who has been a prominent kite flier and author since the early 1970s and continues to work with kites in new, innovative ways today. She most recently wrapped up an interview with Jing-Fei Li, a visiting female scholar from China who attended this summer’s kite festival and brought several new Chinese kites with her to fly and donate to the museum.
The WKM oral history program uses a traditional cassette tape recorder and hour- long interviews, thus providing the listener with topic-focused interviews versus life histories. While the interviews may be short, the documentation makes the archive strong. As a result of Patti’s research, the museum uses standard oral history forms and protocol, including a pre-interview, copyright release, a full verbatim transcript, and the always-essential thank you letter. About one third of the collection has been transcribed. Despite their physical accessibility, Kay notes that no-one from the public, outside of Patti herself, has accessed the archive for research or even just out of curiosity. One reason behind this may be that the project is not accessible on the WKM website and has not been publicized outside of the articles in Kiting.
THE FUTURE OF KITING ORAL HISTORIES
While accessibility is an attractive aspect of oral history as a genre, it has also proven itself as a research methodology with an authentic and personal edge, and one that can be used effectively in historical writings. The intimacy of the narrative and the immediacy of the voice shine through in each of Patti’s articles. “Voices from the Vault” is an example of how oral histories can be brought down from the dusty archive shelf (all too often the grave of incredible stories), and be given new life on the pages of a widely read periodical. For a community museum like WKM, it is exactly the kind of use their rich collection deserves.
While WKM has collected and continues to collect many diverse perspectives on kiting, there is much more work to be done to capture kite personalities, artistry, science, and events through voices and stories. In addition to making the archive accessible on the web, the program can be expanded to include video oral history and even strive to utilize cutting edge applications of oral history, such as an interactive online map, that can be used to connect geography with virtual stories.
Ultimately, and on the simplest level, it is the kiters themselves and the messages they share that make the WKM oral history program so worthwhile. Listening to the voices of those who are no longer with us can be a truly powerful experience.
“Kites are one thing that knows no gender gap, or age gap…there are very few things left in our culture that all ages can do together – kiting is one of them. I blame my granddaughter more or less for getting me interested in kiting.”
– Bill Lockhart, Jan. 25, 1926 – Aug. 8, 2009
Buesing, Kay. Email messages. “kite bio…KB” from Feb 17–19, 1998.
Interview at the World Kite Museum. July 9, 2009.
Interview at the World Kite Museum. September 14, 2009.
Oral history interview with Jing-Fei Li. August 2009.
Gandesbery, Jean. “Ordinary Lives Illuminated: Writing Oral History.” The Quarterly. Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter 1990.
Gibbons, Patti. Email message. “Oral history, WKM and Kiting Articles” from September 22, 2009.
Oral History Collection User’s Guide. World Kite Museum & Hall of Fame. 1996.
Oral History Manual. World Kite Museum & Hall of Fame. 1996.
Oral history interview with bill lockhart, August 1995.
Telephone interview. September 24, 2009.
”Voices from the Vault: Wolfgang Bieck” Kiting. American Kitefliers Association. Autumn 2009, Vol. 31, Issue 3.
Miller, Marla. “Long Week in Long Beach.” Kiting. American Kitefliers Association. Autumn 2009, Vol. 31, Issue 3.
World Kite Museum. The World on a String: What’s New, Who’s News in Kiting. Drachen Design Inc. 1993.