Category Archives: People

Podcasts from the museum

I’m not sure how into podcasts you are, so at the risk of assuming too much or too little, I want to share something with you.

I got into podcasts during grad school, when I had an hour long transit trip to and from campus each day. I was studying in the US, and although I scoffed at the introductory workshops for international students when they warned of culture shock, I was fully and completely in its throes. So I picked one that I had heard years before on the radio, and remembered that I liked, because I hoped it would help me relate to my new home. It was called: This American Life.

Each episode shares stories around a theme, usually from a journalist or other interesting person, told in narrative and conversational form. Often they’re surprising, heartwarming, shocking, or funny, in some combination. My favorite though, is all of those and of course, it’s got a museum theme.

I’ve been holding off on writing this blog post, because I wasn’t sure how to share this one show with you, without spoiling the episode. While doing a bit of research, I learned just how many museum based podcasts there are… SOO MANY. There’s just a whole lot, and at the risk of stereotyping museums, a fair number of them are boring. I thought if I share some that I’m pretty sure aren’t boring it might be helpful. Plus, with a list I can tell you about This American Life without writing about the story, so you can hear it for yourself. So, here’s a few humble recommendations:

1. This American Life’s “The Feather Heist.” This episode provides a starting off point for a lot of interesting thinking to me. Some of my favorite themes to think with include the “value” of collections and to whom, security in museums and our obligations to collections in relation to our budgets, and the global impacts of fashion (which museums are definitely implicated in, although my wardrobe is not good evidence of this).

2. Everything is Alive‘s “Connor, Painting”. This show is a really interesting way to think about objects. The premise is a talk show in which the host interviews objects, who tell their life story. It’s a perfect fit for the “empathy” theme that directs our work in Open Minds, and it’s super fun to listen to. Just a warning:  there is some sexual innuendo in this episode. Although the magic trick of sexualizing a painting is pretty hilariously bizarre, it might not make sense for young ears.

3. NHM LA Talks by Natural History Family of Museums Los Angeles County. This podcast has too many good episodes to name. Today I listened to one called “Mostly Dead is Slightly Alive” which turned out to be about zombies, neuroscience, and history. The series explores a variety of topics from across the sciences, with perspectives from academics, museum folk, and a whole bunch of plain old fascinating people. This podcast also has an episode about the subject of the feather heist, so you could cross-reference.

4. Working’s How does a Museum Specialist Work? This podcast from Slate explores “what people do all day at their jobs” It has so many interesting episodes for young minds, (umm… but also some episodes that are NSFW, so… use with discretion), including a whole pile of museum related episodes about working as an art auctioneer, an archaeologist, a librarian, a set of jobs at MoMA, and a few jobs from the museum world’s unruly cousins: aquariums. This episode is about Mary Elliott, a curator with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, the newest Smithsonian institution on the National Mall. I’ll be honest, this podcast has a bit of a slow burn for me, but even just the idea of it opens some interesting thoughts.

5.  Intangible Alberta by the Royal Alberta Museum. This homegrown podcast is pretty new, and only has a few episodes. I listened to one called Ghosts in the Vault, which  probably isn’t great for nervous folks. But, ghosts are sort of friends of museums, and their presence is often a source of wonder for kids. There’s some interesting space in this episode to think about how stories are constructed, and respect for people and belongings.

Bonus:  You’re Wrong About‘s Yoko Ono Broke Up the Beatles: This podcast uses NSFW language, but I threw this episode in here because their whole ethos is looking deeper and allowing things to be as complicated as they really are + Contemporary Calgary has a YOKO exhibit coming up this spring!

All of these podcasts are free either directly from the web, or from a variety of podcasting apps, but send me a message if you have any trouble finding them. Oh, and if you’ve heard some good ones, let me know!

 

The Value of an Idea

This week, you may have seen a banana taped to well… something. These funny yellow interventions have been popping up across walls (both material, and digital), and other surfaces all week. This is because of the one used in Maurizio Cattelan’s piece “Comedian” at Miami’s Art Basel, which sold for $120,000.

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I’ve scrolled through some interesting conversations about this banana, but I generally try to stay away from digital debate, so I hadn’t said too much about it – until the kids started complaining. One of the young folks in my life is an emerging artist, she was super annoyed about the price the work fetched, given the minimal amount of technical skill used by the artist to make it – specifically relative to the amount of work she puts into her art. At that moment… I realized that, finally… all my years of arts based education had prepared me for a real life situation!!! And… what’s more, I thought if any of you were struggling to explain to your art-aware students why a banana taped to a wall means so much to so many people, I could possibly help.

Let’s start with meaning, this peice isn’t really about a banana. It’s about an idea. This type of work is called conceptual art, which is a practice in which the artist is using the materiality of the piece to draw our attention to an idea. The idea IS the art – the materials just help the artist explain it.

Conceptual art emerged with post-structuralism, which asks us to re-think our relationships to concepts and ideas. The theory goes like this:  some basic structural knowledge is necessary for us to understand any concept be it supposedly simple (like say, a banana) or complex (like say, economics). Banana is just a word, it could mean anything really, but in our culture, we know what a banana is (usually yellow, sometimes brown, fruit, grows in hot climates, etc.), and what it isn’t (a car, a skateboard, a color, a hat). A post-structural approach asks us to be mindful of the structures that allow our common understandings. BECAUSE a banana could be (and has been) a car, a skateboard, a color, and a hat – and many other things. We borrow and use parts of things to build a scaffolding that holds up meaning in our society - if I tell you this link leads to a picture of a banana car, you already have an idea what that looks like because you know what both a banana and a car “are”. Post-structuralists, like conceptual artists, are asking us to think about that “are” – they draw our attention to things that we take for granted, and ask us to examine them.

So what sort of things does a banana taped to a wall make us think more deeply about? What scaffolding is it using? For me, there’s three main reference points of banana in my life: banana as food commodity, banana as comedic foil, & banana as weapon in Donkey Kong. These reference points are of course individual, so there’s as many of them as there are people, but they’re also cultural: there are shared ideas about what bananas are and what they do that many people agree on.

When I’m looking at this work, I wonder if Cattelan is using the complex issues of the global trade of the banana to comment on commercialization in the art world? Conceptual art is, in many ways, a response to the commerciality of other forms of visual art, because it generally eschews collection, display, and aesthetic value (the purchasers of the piece in this case will get a certificate that allows them permission to mount it, using direction and specifications written by the artist). For example, this work had to be taken down before the end of the show, because of fears of damage. Thinking along these lines, leads us to wonder about the banana as perishable. Is Cattelan asking us to think about the ways that art traditions change over time, their depreciation and appreciation, and their relationships with (or apart from, due to conservation) lifecycles?

The banana was also famously used (by comedians), as a sight gag. It would be tossed, and someone would slip. That slip was not usually understated. Most often it’s an epic fall that causes the unfortunate person to land on their bottom – a reframing of their world if you will, to a new horizontal perspective. This reference has such a strong place in collective memory that it has been built into the fabric of contemporary culture through video games. Donkey Kong hasn’t had his own game since around 2014 (for Nintendo DS), but tossing a banana peel to foil your enemy is an classic element of the iconic game Mario Cart. When you toss a banana in game, you cause your opponent to slip up. If done correctly, this causes the player to lose standing, thereby reframing the in-game world. Is Cattelan demanding us to look at art through a reframing, a new viewpoint, as if we had slipped on the peel? Or is he saving us from slipping, because it’s taped to the wall? Is he asking us to see the absurdity in the piece, and apply it to other works as well?

I could go on wondering, and we haven’t even got to the duct tape yet, but I think I’ve made my point… It doesn’t matter exactly what Cattelan wanted to direct our attention to, because we have paid attention to the work, and brought ourselves to it. We’ve used it to explore ideas. Although this work is clearly complex, with many interesting ideas inside, it makes sense to focus in on the role of comedians, who hold up a mirror to society and ask us to laugh at what we see.

I wish we had one at the museum! If we did, I’d ask students what they know about bananas, (or duct tape) and let their responses lead us into interesting rabbit holes, complex ideas, and deeply personal stories. The upshot is, I’m planning to do that with the other art that’s here anyways.

P.S. Earlier in this post I made a joke here about my educational background, and it’s an easy joke to make, low hanging fruit really – but in actual fact, I  believe that university training, especially in the arts, is a really valuable skillset that has prepared me to navigate the complexities of life (both professional and personal) in important ways. I’m a huge advocate of educational opportunities that speak to the needs of the whole person, which I feel like art approaches better than a lot of other disciplines.

P.P.S. You should know that David Datuna (another conceptual artist) ate the banana as a performance piece, and brilliantly described it as putting a question mark, after Cattelan’s question mark. Also, Cattelan has worked in with duct tape before.

P.P.P.S. $120,000 may be a lot for a banana (we could keep talking about the comoditiy trade and global poervty here) but it’s not a lot for a contemporary piece from an important artist like Cattelan who had another work recently blow up in pop culture. Many works sold for millions at Art Basel Miami this year.

Unsettling the Future – Imagining!

I went to a really interesting conference this fall hosted by the University of Alberta. The presenters were Indigenous scholars working in “research-creation” – or to put it another way, the products of their academic work is not just publications, it could be art, films, video games, anything they could imagine as a good way to share a message. I felt this was an important conference to attend, because a lot of art, and working with artifacts, is about imagining and finding new ways to share messages.

All the folks at the conference had one thing in common, they were trying to unsettle settler-colonial presence. It was the first time I had been confronted with real, intentional, active work to diminish my privilege in favor of a new paradigm for this land. I imagined that I might feel ashamed or uncomfortable in this gathering, as a white settler person myself, but actually it was really inspiring.

Sometimes I feel like intentions of Reconciliation are often sort of unspoken. We’ve more or less agreed that as a nation, we’ll try to recognize the horror that colonization caused to Indigenous people… but the discussion of this harm being ongoing, or reparations, or of the changes that this recognition could encourage is sort of absent. There is a growing chorus in the Indigenous community of discontent with reconciliation – could this be because none of us are sure of its goals or intent?

This conference made clear to me some of the goals Indigenous folks have for this land and their space (and mine) on it. The most encouraging thing I came away with – is that their intent feels like it would make this place better for us all. Far from imagining a world where settler people are relegated to some contemporary-reserve-like-retributive-space, the future these folks aspired to was one in which our relationships to each other and the world around us  are central to the ways we interact together: thus all our decisions are made based on our needs to support and sustain each other. If this sounds a bit utopic, fair… so I’ll include some highlights from their work that are bounded in reality. Hope you enjoy!

Jason Edward Lewis… co-wrote this really interesting essay, and also does really fascinating work with game design and arts based technology.

Mandee McDonald… is engaging in research that she envisioned that would allow her do spend as much time as possible doing her favorite thing in the world – tanning hides with her friends. Her work explores how embodied experience is rewarding and meaningful, and worth pursuing.

Elaine D. Alexie… makes beautiful jewelry, and has an inspiring life story. She presented on museum research and material culture.

Open Mind – Outsider Art

For those of you coming to the museum this spring we’ve got an interesting exhibit on deck. It’s a photography show, the art of Vivian Maier. I’m not well versed enough in photography to be able to speak to this work in a more meaningful way than Glenbow has already used… here’s what our team has to say about it:

“Vivian Maier’s life has proven to be one of the most enduring and fascinating art world narratives of the last decade. The story of this Chicago-based nanny who pursued photography in her spare time inspired an Oscar-nominated documentary film and several books. Through her furtive pastime, Maier eventually amassed more than 2,000 rolls of film, 3,000 prints and more than 120,000 negatives, which she shared with virtually no one in her lifetime.”

I’ll admit, I’m not particularly interested in the content of this show (she says before it opens, then usually falls in love). BUT… I am absolutely fascinated with the legal and ethical complexities of outsider art - particularly pieces where the maker has died.

For me, Maier’s work implies an important question – what is art?

While she was alive, most of Maier’s photographs were undeveloped. Not much is known about her, but there are a few important details that can help us approach thinking about her work. It seems that she was not well resourced. Shortly before she passed away, she was depending on the help of the now-grown children she once looked after, for financial support. Those who she worked for also suggest that she was an extreme collector, sometimes in possession of stacks and stacks of newspapers (I’m not sure how to take this, doesn’t it make her sound like an archetypical hoarder? Almost too perfectly so). Likewise, her previous employers and their networks give conflicting accounts of her personality – some indicate she was like a “real life Mary Poppins” while others say she was frightening and abusive. The case I’m trying to make here is that she was vulnerable in complex ways, and I wonder if her photographs should be considered “art” or an expression of her struggles. To put it another way, I wonder about her intention.

What does it mean to make art? Is it a universal human expression? Or a western construct with particular modalities and frameworks? Does the maker’s intention matter?

Another person who has been made into an outsider artist posthumously is Henry Darger. His vulnerability was much less opaque, raised in an institution, escaped at sixteen, living on the verge of abject poverty, and attending Catholic mass up to five times daily, Darger clearly lived with hardship. Upon his death, his landlords discovered his work: 15 145 page volumes of a piece entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with hundreds of illustrations in watercolor collage. They had his entire apartment preserved, and unbeknownst to him, Darger has become one of America’s most important outsider artists.

Darger’s life in particular gives me pause – what right have we to his work? Neither he, not Maier seemed to have intention to share their productivity with the world. Was this because they didn’t have access to art world connections? Because they were too impoverished to spare resources towards promotion? Because they lacked self-confidence that their work would be valued or understood? Or because they weren’t making art, they were in fact making something else. What if that something else was deeply personal? What if they never intended to share it (indeed, they clearly didn’t).

I have debated and discussed the ethical concerns I have with this type of outsider art in a sort of green eggs and ham style for many years now, and not come to many solid conclusions.  Much greater minds than mine have puzzled over the financial questions of this work, which adds still more layers of complexity to consideration. In the case of Meier, possession of the negative isn’t the same as holding copyright, and courts have long discussed who owns the rights to share and sell her work.

One thing I do know: I and many others have gotten a lot of enjoyment from outsider art (perhaps not to the degree that John Maloof, the primary dealer of Maier’s works who purchased them at auction for a pittance, does). Both of them have inspired several films. Darger’s work is set to music by the band Vivian Girls, named for his central protagonists, and can be seen in video games, comic books, literature, and poetry. In the spring, I imagine many Calgarians will benefit from Maier’s work as well, maybe finding beauty, inspiration, or self reflection in the photographs.

As I’m looking, I’ll wonder whether our enjoyment is justification for what I think, is probably, a kind of theft. She didn’t share this with the world, it was taken, without her permission, and shared. But I’ll also wonder whether the dead should have more rights than the living, and whether maybe she would have shared it if she had the chance.

You might be wondering if it’s appropriate of me to be asking these questions, considering my place at the museum. I think asking questions like this about art makes our experiences with it more rich. I think we owe it to our mission as museums to ask important questions, and to engage ourselves fully and complexly while we look. To enjoy, and to ask ourselves about our enjoyment, what allows us to experience it? What privileges, what paradigms, what laws, what actions… So far from dreading the arrival of this new exhibit which stirs complex feelings in me  - I can’t wait till it’s here.

 

Does the fire draw us?

 

In 2012 I attended the Cree8 Success conference in Edmonton; it was a symposium of arts based learning for working with Indigenous communities, and it was a pretty amazing experience.

One of the most memorable presentations was given by the late Richard Wagamese. You might know that name because one of his novels (which was a Canada reads selection in 2013)  was recently adapted into a film.  When we walked into his room, an otherwise normal hotel conference space, we found it transformed by one small object. Normally at a conference, we walk in and sort of act nonchalant while trying to figure out a good spot in the middle ground between engaged but aloof enough not to look like a keener… just me? Maybe. But in this room, there was a small round light with a fan inside, made to look like a fire. The lights were dim, and we all just walked right up to the circle, and leaned in.

It turns out, the gathering power of fire is a topic that Wagamese has explored before. I recently read Dream Wheels, and there were thoughts about fire and the power it has over us in that story as well.

At Museum School we feel that sometimes we get the chance to try things out with teachers; tools, techniques, supplies, styles… things that may be different or new for teachers, that they can take back if they work well, or leave as a memory if they don’t. Sometimes we have teachers say that something we’ve introduced to them won’t work so hot for their current class, but would have been amazing for their class two years ago… sometimes its the other way around. We like to be a place for experimentation – a place to try new ideas, take risks, and explore.

So… here we go on our next experiment. We want to find out how our own little simulated fire might work in our classroom. We’ll be watching to see if students watch it like a real fire. Does it function like a visual fidget device? Or is it a distraction? We’ll let you know what we observe, and we’d love to hear from you after your week too… does the fire draw us?

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Places for Understanding Who We Are

In early march, we had a (n actually, not so rare) bit of serendipity at Museum School. As John Ware School was preparing to use the Museum as a place to investigate the connections between citizenship and identity, Glenbow had just opened a contemporary exhibit about artist’s experience of place! The gallery’s pieces, including ‘s Jim Me Yoon’s Regard (which in itself is a reflection of Jim Me Yoon’s moving Group of Sixty Seven), Kimowan Metchewais’ Cold Lake Venus, and Maxwell Bates’ Tourists in Victoria, provided rich opportunities for us to examine national culture, what it means to be Canadian, and how place and identity are related.

If that wasn’t enough, by pure chance, the Glenbow Museum was also selected as a site to host a Citizenship Ceremony on the last day of John Ware student’s visit!

There were a few strokes of luck here, firstly, that everyone at ICC was so very accommodating when we told them we wanted to bring 30 extra people, and their journals, to their ceremony. Secondly, that the students were exactly the special people that they were, because the ceremony was both long and incredibly important; these students fully embraced the need for them to witness, and not detract from the moment for the new Canadians. Thirdly, that their teacher is exactly who she is, because from the moment that we knew we had this amazing opportunity she embraced it, providing scaffolding for the students to understand the ceremony and connecting it to their learning.

Afterwards, the students expressed how surprised they were to see the diversity of the new Canadians, who were of varying ages from very young to senior, and who were from countries across the globe. They also told us how moved they were to watch the expressions of the new Canadians as pride, happiness, and even tears lit across their faces. They were impressed by the seriousness and formality of the event, and noted that when you are living in a culture, it’s hard to identify what makes is unique; but that this was a  Canadian ritual, proof of our distinct culture.

There were several special guests who presided over the ceremony, member of parliament for Calgary Center Kent Herr, Chair of the Glenbow Board of Directors Irfhan A. Rawji, respected Blackfoot Elder Clarence Wolfleg, and author and philosopher John Ralston Saul. We noted the different ways each one welcomed the newcomers based on their own culture and identity, with campaign style speeches, warm personal connections, prayer, and advice.

The highlight for me, was when we finished the week with a sharing circle, sitting under the contemplative eyes of Yoon, and her mother in the Regard works. The portraits told us that there were many meanings to the place we were sitting, and reminded us to be thoughtful about be the people we are, and the place we live.

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This post was made for the Campus Calgary Open Minds Blog then re-posed here. Head on over there to check out all the interesting things happening at sites around the city!

The math is there, whether we artists like it or not…

“Focus for a moment on an object in front of you. How do you understand its shape? How would you represent it by drawing it? Imagine turning or rotating it. What would it look like then? How could you create something with the same shape?”

This is spatial intelligence, and it’s fundamental to math, but one of the most interesting places to think about it is in art. Spatial intelligence combines physical knowledge based on visual cues world with abstract thought, and research shows that spatial training improves children’s ability to understand math.

This type of thinking & research helps us understand just how flawed and silly that old “you’re either arts or math brained” thinking really is. Want some real world proof? This summer Marnie and I spent some time in the National Building Museum (which we were not very excited about – we have our own stereotypes to deconstruct I guess). BUT… it was amazing. We happened to catch an aptly named exhibit (Fun House) by a team of artists/architects that reminded us just how entwined art thinking and math thinking are.

When we’re looking at art, or creating it, we’re thinking about space, shape, distance, angles, and design. All fundamental concepts in math. Admittedly this is a different way of thinking about math than our curriculum’s describe (feel free to tell skeptics that students counted the stairs). In museums, we’re rarely doing the math that is most thought of when we say “math class”… we’re doing the math that is foundational to our understandings of those concepts. Museum math is math that helps us understand.

Take, for example… the work of Rebecca Mitchell and Andrea Kantrowitz at the Visual Arts and Sources for Teaching week long teacher institute. During a two hour workshop, they had students study one object, and one dance performance. Each student looked at each piece from their own perspective, and recorded.

“We gathered the teachers back together and placed the drawings of the sculpture on the floor. After a walk around the circle to look at all of them, we discussed the variety of approaches – while some people showed multiple viewpoints in one drawing, others focused on what they could see from their vantage point. Next we looked at everyone’s notes/sketches of the dance, which revealed even more variety. Some people focused on one dancer’s movements, while others watched for overall patterns among all of the dancers. Still others counted steps, traced arcs of the movements, or looked for relationships between the dances and the grid below their feet. All of these approaches yielded successful results, and the variety of solutions enriched the group’s understanding of both the sculpture and dance.”

All this learning, led the group to explore how artists (or anyone) moves from concept to three dimensional work. In other words, how does an object, art, dance etc. get made? How does one move from theory into the physical world? Design thinking, iteration, testing, math.

If that’s not enough for you… there’s actually a Museum of Math, and despite their website’s… uh… ugliness… (sorry. Back to the arts/math issue again), it’s actually got some useful tools (including award winning math lesson plans).

The Museum Balancing Act

One of the things that you learn in any foundational museum studies course, is the sizable role that P.T. Barnum had on the development of museums, particularly in North America. Depending on the type of museum person you might look back on this part of our past with shame, or enjoy it immensely.

I don’t condone the shady practices; Barnum’s reputation for animal care is rumored to be the original impetus for PETA (just kidding), and his care in purchasing artifacts was downright embarrassing even by historic standards (he had all manner of artifacts with questionable provenance and authenticity). But Barnum forces us to recognize that museums are not purist, objective, academic institutions, they usually need to make money to survive, and they always need to maintain public value. As the great educator Seymour Skinner once said “Every good scientist is half B. F. Skinner and half P. T. Barnum.”

Okay, that’s a complicated statement. But regardless of how you feel about his academic legacy, B. F. Skinner did do some pretty entertaining things… like teach pigeons to play ping pong. (My favorite part of that video is where he claims it’s a “real game”).

I digress… but what I’m trying to say here is that our field has these interesting and divergent origins, one as the lauded ivory vault of knowledge, and another as a cabinet of curiosities; and we’re still sort of dancing between these two worlds today.

When you picture the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you’re meant to imagine that imposing building, all important, and filled with facts and knowledge. That’s why many museums are designed the way they are. They’re supposed to be intimidating, it encourages you to believe in, and believe the value of, the stories they tell.

For P.T. Barnum and his ilk (namely the world’s fairs), exhibitions were for the masses. They were entertaining, and often academic rigor was sacrificed for audience engagement (that’s an understatement, and by audience engagement I mostly mean showing things that people would pay money to see). But folks like Barnum understood that in order to be relevant – museums had to be interesting, and there is value in that beyond money for modern institutions as well.

Museums today are nuanced spaces, but still they manage this same complex balance. It’s the tension we experience every time we pick up an artifact in Museum School. Does the artifact have more use in a grade school student’s hands? Or in a credentialed researchers? Does the spark of imagination create value, or is the value inherent and it’s our job to safe guard it? Does this question feel any more important if the artifact in question was made by a people who would like it back? This debate has gravity.

I am still curious about those cabinets. I’m interested in that part of museum history. If you are too I recommend The Feejee-Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History, Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, and Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. Don’t those all sound like fun titles?

Fun trivia moment… have you seen the Feejee mermaid in Banff? This one is actually a merman, but it’s the same concept.

It’s a little late for Halloween, but here’s a scare anyways!

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To get back to my point…

The balancing act occurs every day in museums across the world, and I think also in the hearts of the folks who work with artifacts and the people who could benefit from access to them too. The role of museums is debatable, and we do well to debate it often.

Making the making visible – the Black Gold Tapestry

 

If you haven’t heard about it yet… well, you’re about to. The Glenbow just opened a hand full of brand new exhibits (and I mean a handful! Everyone around here has been so busy, building walls, tearing down walls, painting walls… we do a lot with walls here).

One of the most talked about has been the Black Gold Tapestry. A recent Museum School student described it as “basically the history of the whole world but through the idea of oil.” The piece is 67 metres in length – a scale equivalent to two city blocks or the height of a 20-story building. The artist, Sandra Sawatzky, spent an average of eight to ten hours a day – every day – on the project, researching, drawing, planning and embroidering… for nine years! NINE YEARS.

If you’ve ever done any hand embroidery, you know just how much work an undertaking of this size is. I’m currently embroidering my Halloween costume, and frankly I’m even starting to bet against myself that I’ll have it done in time.

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This is one of those pieces where the craft really reveals itself in the viewer’s experience. Often on the first day of museum school students will say things like “that’s art?! I could make that” (by the end of the week, that sentiment is long gone, and replaced with a much more reverent “I understand how much work went into that.”) Sometimes the mark of great art is to remove the technical, and allow the viewer to interact directly with the subject – in other words, to make the labor invisible. This definitely isn’t the case with the Black Gold Tapestry. When you view it, you cannot escape the time that the artist spend with her material, and so in addition to the story the work tells, you can also get a direct sense of the story of the person who made it.

Maybe this is why, when Sawatzky popped into museum school last week, the students nearly died. (Not literally, I mean that they nearly died like I did that time I met Fred Penner). It felt to them like meeting a celebrity – not to say that she isn’t, I don’t decide such things – and they were beside themselves with awe.

Personally I’m  curious about the decisions she made, because this is a piece that purports to tell a story about ourselves, but it’s very clearly from Sandra’s own point of view. So at the same time, the Tapestry shows us who Sandra is (through the medium she is ever present) but it attempts to obscure her perspective, by placing the story she tells in historic terms. Some of her decisions around color are particularly revealing, and I could see how some visitors may be shocked by the ways she’s used it. (Shocked may be too polite a word…) I think this is a piece that will certainly ignite debate!

Come check it out and see what you think.

 

 

Museums with a bang!

One question that often comes up with students, particularly after a trip to the Warriors Gallery, is some form of “but do these things still work?”

In most cases, those “things” they’re most concerned about are guns, muskets, and bombs.

Depending on my mood, I have a whole host of answers for them… but the business of making dangerous objects safe in museums in most definitely an ongoing one, as The Rooms Museum in St. John’s Newfoundland found out this week!

Read the story from CBC here.

Basically their staff found a mislabeled box, containing WWII explosives. Apparently that particular problem is common in the region and the law enforcement knew just what to do.

The real answer, that I should be telling the students, is that museums always have a policy and a plan.