ST. PETERSBURG — The silver Airstream trailer on the front lawn of the Museum of Fine Arts isn’t packed with the luggage of snowbirds trying to dodge the cold. Its contents include microphones, headphones, audio editing software and little else, save for stories of love, heartbreak, perseverance and awe.
Part of a national project launched by the nonprofit Story Corps, the mobile sound booth’s operators are capturing a diverse array of stories from people nationwide. The mobile studio goes from city to city, and in previous years has stopped in Tampa and Sarasota. This month, it will be at the museum, 255 Beach Drive N.E., where dozens of locals will climb the Airstream’s stairs to tell stories that are both personal and revealing of the city and its history.
Local civil rights leader Sevell Brown was among the first in the booth Monday.
“We want to make sure we chronicle what it was like as an African-American growing up in St. Petersburg in the ‘40s and in the ‘50s under segregation, and how that transitioned after the 1971 ... [court] order that desegregated all the schools in Pinellas County,” he said.
Brown said he hoped to speak in-depth about the mid-1990s riot that erupted after a St. Petersburg police officer shot and killed an 18-year-old black man.
“That’s one of the key things we need to make sure we gave clarification to ... in terms of all those historic people that stepped up to the plate irrespective of color, religion or gender to make sure that St. Pete is what it should be,” he said.
The booth will operate every day except for Tuesday and Thursdays, including weekends.
Mobile tour supervisor Eliza Bettinger said it is booked for the first half of the month, but starting Tuesday they will be taking more appointments.
Typically people participate in pairs of either relatives or friends, with one interviewing the other.
“You talk with them for 40 minutes,” Bettinger said. “You ask questions about anything you want to know about; stories from their life ... whatever you want to ask them.”
Participants get a CD featuring their interviews in full, and can opt to have a copy sent to the Library of Congress. Audio from particularly compelling interviews will be edited for broadcast nationally or on a local affiliate during National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.”
Some even inspire an animated short story, which runs on local PBS affiliates as well as the StoryCorps website.
So far, StoryCorps has collected more than 45,000 interviews with nearly 90,000 participants, who have contributed something the project’s supporters see as essential to preserving a cultural identity.
“Stewardship for memory is what culture is about,” said St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts director Kent Lydecker. “It’s what cultural institutions are about.”
Those interested in signing up may call (800) 850-4406 or visit here for more information.