I was happy to see a recent post on the westmuse blog- the Western Museums Association- about my former boss, Rebecca Andrews, Ethnology Collections Manager at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. I deeply appreciate the work that Becky and the rest of the Ethnology department do to ensure that tribes have access to the collections of the Burke for research and ceremonial purposes.
I have many fond memories of working in the Ethnology collection, including the building of additional compact storage units and the reorganization of hundreds of rolled textiles. Along with textiles some other 3D objects, like baskets, hats and fish traps, also had to be moved into the new rolling shelves. Among these were some boxes of sacred items from local Washington tribes that were covered in cloth or kept in boxes. Carrying and cataloging these objects was, for me a tense exercise, as I didn’t want to disrespect their importance, and because I knew the Burke continues to allow tribes to use these objects for ceremonies.
In my opinion, these are best practices- inviting and encouraging visitors and stakeholders to participate and create more memories and interpretation of historic objects.
Sometimes this is the best way to get a Thai spirit house from point A to point B
A few months ago I came across this post from Swissmiss and it’s been on my mind ever since. Obviously, it’s not a museum (a small part of me if sad that things are “decaying”) but it’s an accidental preservation of clothing and salesmenship from the 1990s. A preservation of ordinary life- which is what many historic houses and sites are working very hard to maintain.
The shop in London was thrown into stark contrast when I read Jim’s challenging post about my current workplace and other historic sites and the atmosphere of preserving history in Metro Detroit.
What I think ties these two topics together, across an ocean, is that they are both preserving the everyday life of normal people, however who and where they are preserving is the key. This shop in London has remained in the city and is documenting a family business in the same place it has been for over 50 years. Of course, this shop is not open to the public and is in no way suggesting it is grounded in historical research- it just is and remains.
As evidenced by photographs, many historic sites in Metro Detroit stand alone in a field, cut off from the rest of the neighborhood or suburb that continues to grow and change around it. These houses are not present in the minds and lives of current citizens. While they might serve as a great field trip for 3rd graders learning about Michigan history, do they have meaning to others? And almost none of these buildings exist in Detroit proper. History in Detroit is a loaded topic- suburbia cannot be mentioned without the acknowledgment of race and segregation. So by choosing to tell the historic significance of the suburbs before they became the suburbs, we’re missing the stories entire populations of people who lived in this area.
Can historians/students/citizens make these places more real?
When I hear museum professionals talk about providing experiences for disabled people, it's often in reference to wheelchairs. Seeing these images helps put into perspective the many way we could better serve audiences with special needs. I've been seeing more museums, like the DIA and the Frye, offer programs for adults with dementia to them connect emotionally and physically with art.
There are simple things we can do to give more individuals meaningful experiences with art.
I’m not sure I entirely agree with this article, but I think it clarified something for me today. In thinking about art from a neurological perspective, I like the comparison this NYTimes opinion piece makes: that looking at, and understanding, a work of art in your brain (and as the author argues, your whole self) is like having a conversation.
“We might say that works of art pose questions and encountering a work of art meaningfully requires understanding the relevant questions and getting why they matter, or maybe even, why they don’t matter, or don’t matter any more, or why they would matter in one context but not another.”
This is exactly the work that museums try to facilitate, especially for a public who often have not had the opportunity to hone those conversational skills. Museum educators, curators, interpreters, docents, strive to build a space or an exhibit with background knowledge and focused attention to help visitors understand and communicate with art. By not teaching art in schools and not encouraging each other and ourselves to look closer/deeper, we are ill-prepared to speak with art, just like an individual without friends. And that lack of understanding (ability to understand context, patience to take turns and listen) can become a feed-back loop of feeling inadequate and overwhelmed for visitors. These are the obstacles museum professionals are trying to overcome, to develop those moments of conversation in the galleries, and encourage visitors to take that conversation home with them.
An exciting place to think about museums (and I do mean think/ponder/postulate) is the Center for the Future of Museums Foundation blog. The blog touches on a wide range of topics within museums- collecting, funding, technology, and the public good.
Check out this interview with the founder of CFM, Elizabeth Merritt, on my own hometown radio program, Craig Fahle Show. Big questions about whether museums can stay relevant and what changes might be on the horizon.
Museum theory tells us to preserve things so the next generation can learn from them. However, during my brief stint in collections management I realized how divorced museums have to be from life: chairs cannot be sat on, instruments cannot be played, teapots should be held by the bottom and spout, not the handle. By not using objects for productivity, by not living with them, the idea goes, we can prove productivity and life to our children…
How sad that these objects are no longer part of life, but are preserved behind polyethylene and archival cardboard. And how do we make these objects relevant to visitors to make their preservation worth the time and effort, because there’s never enough time. Will digitized collections really change the way the average visitors uses museum resources?
Visitors are always asking to see more stuff and hear more stories instead of reading about it. And I’m in support of this. Just trying to think of more ways to reach that authentic experience while at the same time ensuring that another visitor, 10 years from now, can also have the life changing experience. I’m not sure if putting everything in a catalog online is the answer- maybe we should be creating something totally different and visitor-driven that doesn’t look like shopping for shoes.
After working for a history museum and living history community for a year, I’ve come to appreciate “food ways.” Thinking about preparing meals pre-oven seems like an adventure. Reading about forgotten vegetables that once grew native to this soil is fascinating and somewhat disappointing- I start thinking of the tastes I’m missing.
Salon had a short piece on Monticello and features Jefferson as the first “foodie” (I hate this term). I really like the mention of Jefferson’s table as a combination of high and low- he was eating new, strange vegetables but combining them with the techniques and presentation of a French chef. It’s a nice suggestion that the US has always combined many cultural aspects to create something new, including food. However, I think it’s somehow sad that we romanticize that food (grown, prepared and served by slaves) which obviously took so much effort to produce, as something that would be impossible today (shucks).
And just a couple weeks ago was a lovely article about growing forgotten herbs and vegetables at the Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass. Some vegetables fall out of fashion for a reason, but these days I feel so bored with cucumbers and carrots that maybe I need a colonial root vegetable to wake me up in this heat wave.
If you have been living off the grid, like me, perhaps you didn’t see this touching flickr photostream of letters from authors and “important people” to the Troy, MI, Public Library upon it’s opening in 1971. Notable names in the lineup: Pearl S. Buck, Neil Armstrong, Isaac Asimov and Dr. Seuss. These letters remind me that people do learn a lot through informal media, and that type of learning is profound.
Also enjoying a brief spotlight is the Library of Congress National Jukebox, featuring incredible historic recordings from all genres and eras, and providing hours of audio entertainment. This is Pandora for the ages…what America sounds like. This is one of my favorite kinds of interactive digital exhibits; the experience is completely visitor driven, very low barriers to participation, and it can be experienced solo or in a group.
Over the last 5 years museums have made it a priority to use social media to encourage communication and connection between museums and the public through twitter, facebook, etc. However, most institutions share only basic information like gallery hours, special events and new exhibitions. But there has also been a quiet increase in exhibitions fueled by social media participation; with content created or provided by the public. I won’t talk too much about Wafaa Bilal and his piece Domestic Tension, or Shawn Brixey’s Chimera Obscura, but there are many examples of artists using visitors to create art. And many museums accept and encourage visitors to submit family photos or stories. It’s more rare for museums to inquire research data from the public.
Currently, there are some data-based projects that visitors can participate in. Visitors can be a part of the content/research at the National Building Museum (I had never heard of this place before, maybe that makes me a bad museologist…maybe not). The NBM is looking for information from the public about their living spaces- homes in particular- to analyze data through time about our culture of living. This study has the potential to gather a substantial amount of data, although getting participants will probably be a challenging endeavor.
Personally, this kind of information is fascinating to me. And somewhat related to data presentation/infographics/learning is a recent article in the NYTimes that a colleague sent to me. Some folks are proposing that we are in a new era of thinking where we use data to think about the humanities.
Networks! Maps! More metadata!
I believe arts and humanities developments/theories could only become more solid when paired with statistical evidence. But maybe that’s the evaluator in me talking.
I’ll admit it: most of the time I enjoy tweeting. It’s a coolly disconnected but devotional way to share snippets of your life, articles and videos with friends (and strangers); it’s short so it really can’t get annoying; you never have to “catch up” on tweets you missed; and I’ve actually met a lot of museum professionals through Twitter. Really.
Here is a list of my favorite museum-related twitter members- staff members, museum enthusiasts, professionals not associated with an institution, museum mascots and artifacts, and the Museum of Animal Perspectives, now known as NewNHM. The New Museum of Natural History does not yet have a physical space but provides visitors with video and photographs of animals in the wild. The content never disappoints.