History Lesson

American INSIGHT’s Margaret Chew Barringer celebrates the past in the here-and-now.



Narberth’s Margaret Chew Barringer firmly believes her non-profit, Web-based multimedia video production company can convey an appreciation of history to a younger generation.

“What’s the use of getting older if you don’t have some standards and a certain amount of respect for the past?” poses Barringer. “However, those of us leftover from the 1960s aren’t used to being the authority—or to being authoritarian.”

The younger generation may know what buttons to push—even if they’re technological buttons. But in the eyes of the 61-year-old founder and chair of American INSIGHT, the new generation has lost the soul of storytelling, which stems from embracing the background behind any tale. “Without our history, we’ve become a spiritual wasteland,” Barringer says. “We need to find the sweetness again.”

It’s why she traveled back and forth to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, transporting poets in a seven-year cultural exchange while developing the American Poetry Center (APC), an organization dedicated to bringing people together to appreciate a historic oral tradition. From her kitchen table, she organized literary symposia, coordinated publications and initiated special events, including a statewide literary arts festival. She spurred networking among 500 poets and writers. After a decade, what she called Poetry Month in Pennsylvania became National Poetry Month (in April), now coordinated by the Academy of American Poets in New York.

Barringer’s APC became American INSIGHT in 2005, broadening its scope and crossing the digital divide. Now she’s building community by producing local historical documentaries about the lives and works of individuals who’ve made lasting cultural, social and political contributions to this country. The venture has already involved hundreds of individuals and dozens of museums. It also includes a successful regional internship program.

Of late, American INSIGHT’s board of directors has developed a strategic plan and implemented an earned-income division—Make History Everyday!—to supplement the funding of its larger multi-year productions. The company is partnering with institutions and individuals to merge archival photos, old footage and memorabilia with on-camera interviews. The visual result empowers clients by preserving, protecting and presenting their stories. Because it’s Web-based, mass exposure is a staggering, sobering possibility. “We’re tapping into the jugular,” says Barringer.

No one understands the capacity of the Internet, but its utilization already far surpasses the once-almighty TV screen. “We’re all aware of YouTube and Facebook,” Barringer says. “The need to share is in all of us.”

American INSIGHT’s current historical documentary series is “Philadelphia Visionaries in Art, Science and the Sacred.” The first installment, Arthur B. Carles, Philadelphia Artist—a 30-minute production on the painter whose work preceded the abstract expressionists in New York by a decade—was funded by more than 150 donors. It premiered in November 2004 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and then was shown at 18 regional cultural institutions. It’s currently being broadcast on the region’s cable stations. “To see it on a screen that was 20 feet tall, everyone just went berserk,” Barringer says.

Leaving the premiere, she connected with someone who suggested the second film in the series, a one-hour documentary called Free Speech: A Sacred Challenge. “A huge current went through me,” Barringer says about the impulse to use 13 murals in the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building painted by Philadelphia artist Violet Oakley in 1906 to explore the passionate commitment to free speech they document. The murals focus on William Penn and predecessors such as William Tyndale (who printed the first English version of the Bible in 1526) and Quaker founder George Fox. Like poets, each found the courage to “speak for themselves.”

Production will begin when 50 percent of the anticipated budget is raised. Upon completion, it will be screened locally, shown through broadcast, educational and cable outlets, and sold, rented and streamed directly from American INSIGHT’s website. The site will also highlight the documentary’s archival images and feature interactive dialogs with the scholars and civic leaders involved.

Margaret Chew Barringer’s artistic bent isn’t shocking. Her mother, Anne Sophia Chew Barringer, was an artist. Her maternal grandfather, Benjamin Chew (a direct descendant of Benjamin Chew, the first chief justice of Pennsylvania and later the Penn family lawyer), was an international photographer.

Her sense of adventure and discovery derives from her paternal grandfather, Daniel Moreau Barringer. An explorer and mining engineer, he was regarded as a pioneer of meteoritics, the scientific study of meteorites, cosmic dust, asteroids, comets and the origins of the solar system. “He was way ahead of his time,” she says. “He made a fortune, but also lost a fortune on his inquiries.”

Barringer grew up in Wayne and loved mythology, art, history, literature and religion. She took classes in the classics at Bryn Mawr College into her 30s while raising four children.

Next to poetry, Barringer’s other fascination is photography. Fifteen years ago, with the intent of merging her poetry and photography for mass exposure in a burgeoning digital universe, she began taking local courses in audio-visual and digital technology. “It was simply my own inner exploration as an artist,” she explains.

Most common in her creative mediums is storytelling. “The story is bigger than all of us,” Barringer says. “It’s been my focus all along.”

Her first serious break in film came when she was commissioned by a New York gallery to capture interviews with American painter Quita Brodhead, then in her 90s and living in Wayne, where she co-founded the Wayne Arts Center. Because Brodhead was a student of Arthur B. Carles (who died in 1952), Barringer was invited to a retrospective of his work. Despite her lifelong involvement in the local art scene, she’d never heard of him.

“I just dropped to my knees when I saw his canvases,” she says. “They lit up the gallery, and it occurred to me instantly that this is what’s been missing: We don’t honor our own [in Philadelphia]. We wait until the person turns 100 (like Brodhead did), or is dead first, to do it. We always underappreciate our heroes. I thought, ‘Let’s do something about that.’”

Barringer’s perseverance is paying off. With the launch of American INSIGHT, she’s succeeded in the painstaking process of aligning digital video editors, camera and sound crews, musicians, composers, production assistants, post-production personnel, Internet marketing specialists and Web designers, on-camera experts, historians, professors, and primary sources. “I’m finding the best of the best that Philadelphia has to offer, and it takes time to do it right,” she says.

Barringer is in the right city, with a tourism industry that celebrates the past. “There are thousands of people selling history in Philadelphia,” she says. “Yet few historical societies have enough money to make their own films. As a non-profit, we can help them. I’m hoping the organization will outlive me. That’s my goal.”

To learn more about American INSIGHT, visit americaninsight.org.

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