Category Archives: Artifacts

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!

 

Putting things in Order

I’ve been re-reading Foucault’s The Order of Things (in the hopes that I’ll understand more of it the more times I read it – which I’ve usually found to be true, among the many, many philosophers whose work I struggle to understand), and came across something great. I remember, the first time I read it, I had so many feelings – but the biggest one was wonder.

In this book Foucault introduces a taxonomy of animals, supposedly from a Chinese encyclopedia, but more likely from the fantastical mind of Jorge Luis Borges (Edward Siad might have something to say about the way this list has been taken up in the west, but we won’t go there). The list is a proposed classification system of animals, that divides them into 14 categories, and it goes like this:

  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

What I (and maybe Foucault, but again, I’m struggling) think is great about this list, is how it draws our attention to the ways we classify and arrange, and reminds us that many of the things we think are natural, are actually constructions.

For example, inside the museum, historically we classified artifacts according to their materials, and where along the spectrum of progress that artifact belongs. This way of thinking assumed that there were people called “savages” and people called “civilized” and an artifact could tell you where between those two points, a group of people belonged. Many museums have rethought this perspective, and today arrange, display, and classify artifacts according to the cultural group. This sounds a lot more thoughtful, but in practice it’s complex and messy. Who gets to decide that an artifact is indexical of a group of people? If not the museum scholar (anthropologist, archeologist etc.) then maybe the community of origin? But who among them? Most communities don’t have an internal process for describing and categorizing their own culture just waiting for a museum to come ask - and if you don’t believe me, ask a few folks you know what Canadian culture is.

In a museum, the idea of a “scientific” taxonomy is naturalized. You come to a museum for knowledge about the world, so of course the museum “knows” – we’ve already built this idea into our culture. There are devices in the museum that help reify this too, from the architecture of the building (museums are intended to look grand, to make you feel small and the importance of the collection, and it’s state collector, large), to the tiny labels on all the artifacts. These labels are often called tombstones in museum parlance, which is interesting because it implies that the object is dead, and that the key information about it’s life is what it was, who contributed to its meaning, and when it was made. As a scholar recently pointed out to me, reading labels is iterative; you might read hundreds on a single trip to a museum, which is a practice that entrenches their meaning and value. When you read one, you might think “huh, interesting!” But after a day of reading labels that tell you what something is, you walk away trusting the knowledge of the museum more deeply.

While in western culture it’s common to see artifacts as non-living, many of the items in a museum come from communities  that have very different ideas about personhood. Likewise, there are many different ways to describe an artifact. Marnie and I were imagining re-writing labels according to new taxonomies the other day – thinking about what information might be most helpful for understanding something or relating to it. Here’s some of ours:

  • classification based on what was in the artists/makers heart at the time of making
  • classification based on who an item was made for (self-other)
  • classification based on the types of reasons things are made according to the maker
  • classification based on resemblance to a dog… ;)

I’m not trying to suggest that a museum designed and organized based on all artifacts proximity to dogs would be a better way to know the world (although, I would absolutely go to that museum if it existed), but it’s kind of an interesting thought experiment to examine the ways we classify. It’s also important to helping us bring empathy to a museum, because the ways I classify are much different than perhaps the ways other people would. So I’ll leave you with a few questions, just for fun: How would you order the world? How might your ways of seeing, be impacted by the order itself?

“Honoring who we are” is rooted in honesty

I recently read an article about a project at the Brooklyn Museum where folks who have been charged with a minor offense can avoid jail or court appearance by participating in an art empathy program.

I’m not sure what the program entails, but looking at the art they use, I can begin to imagine. In the museum, we often talk about how artifacts & art tell stories. We love to tell the ones that show the beauty of humanity, and the thoughtfulness and care that an artist puts in to their work.

But those artifacts often tell hard stories too. Sad ones about challenging personal experiences, or about the systemic hardships that whole groups of people face. We wouldn’t have such beautiful Yoruba works in the west Africa gallery without the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The beauty of the rocks and minerals stand in contrast to the dark scars on the land that mining causes. Our Indigenous collections hold legacies of theft and genocide.

Each of these stories are complex, when we use the word story it’s a convenient shorthand, but if you’re thinking of children’s stories that’s not what I mean. In these stories, there are no neat categories, no “good characters” and “bad characters” – although there are plenty of humans, more than humans, and other beings too.  In the modern world with so many demands on our time and attention it feels (to me at least) that binary thinking provides some easy answers to challenging questions. Yet this is the kind of thinking that leads to seeing “ourselves” and “the other” everywhere we look. It’s the kind of thinking that encourages judgement instead of compassion. It’s the kind of thinking that doesn’t allow time to really consider all the stories.

If we want to really understand, we need to take honest looks at the stories in these artifacts, and sometimes that requires a lot of courage. We might discover things about our past, or even our present that make us uncomfortable. We may see reflections of our legacy that we don’t recognize ourselves within. We might have to grapple with new ways of thinking about things we thought we knew. All of this is hard work.

This is the kind of work that it seems to me this program at the Brooklyn Museum is doing: having a close look at a work, and reflecting on what it says about society, our world, and ourselves. Their work shows that this type of engagement can be really productive – and by extension, that museums that help us think in new ways can be really productive. When I’m working in the museum, I’m always working at this. To try and help guests and students see the stories that are there with a compassion that helps us all exist in kinder ways. Sometimes this means working through some challenging ideas, but I believe as long as we’re working on them together, we’ll get somewhere new, and hopefully better.

When you come to the museum, expect honesty, and bring your courage (too). It’ll be beautiful, it’ll be surprising, it’ll be hard, but it’ll be worth it.

 

Memory Sketch

Memory sketching is one of the thinking routines that we recommend getting your students used to before coming to the museum. Basically, you have them look at something, then later, ask them to sketch it.
You can work up to this by giving them an object to sketch, taking it away, and having them sketch immediately. This builds up the skill so students aren’t so intimidated when they’re tasked with drawing something they haven’t seen in a while.
Doing this helps them build skills in pattern and design element recognition. Also it takes some of the pressure off making exact sketches. Like most things we do, it’s helpful for you to lead by doing. Show them your messy abstract drawings of everyday things and they’ll know it’s okay to try.

book photo Journal drawing

Second Nature

So I said I would start putting more of my journal pages in the blog, and here I am making good on my promise. When the new exhibits went up this fall, I thought I had forever to spend with them. Now that Lawren Harris‘ works have gone, DaveandJenn‘s The Wellspring has moved on, and Jennifer Wanner‘s Second Nature is going dark this week… I can’t help but think I NEED MORE TIME!!!

I did take an afternoon to spend with Wanner’s beautiful images before the holiday started  – and I used one of the classic thinking routines: See Think Wonder. Using three columns, make note first of what you see, then what you think, then what all those combined make you wonder. Seems a bit basic, but once you try it, you get a sense of actually how helpful it is for organizing your thoughts. Or even just moving your observations to a deeper level. Next time you’re standing in front of something and not quite sure how to feel (which, for me is basically all the time), and give it a try in your head.

My sketchbook entry & an example of the thinking routine See Think Wonder

My sketchbook entry & an example of the thinking routine See Think Wonder

This is the last weekend to see Wanner’s haunting and beautiful exhibition Second Nature at Glenbow, so you’ve still got time if you haven’t seen it yet.

Not that we don’t have some great shows coming up next….

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.

When you visit… But Museums Are Boring!?

One of the best parts of being in Museum School is that moment at the end of the week when we do our “closing ceremony” and we talk about all the things that students experienced, saw, felt, and learned to enjoy here. There’s always so many insightful comments from young people and adults, and it’s a wonderful moment for me.

Usually the discussion is pretty diverse; even though it’s the same programs, artifacts, and building, every week these young minds interpret things in their own way and fascinating perspectives always emerge.

However, there is one topic that does often come up. It sounds like this:

“When I first came here I thought it was going to be boring”

Parents always howl when they hear this… I think it’s one of those moments where one person says what a lot of others were thinking.

Now, I know, that by the end of museum school, even if you’re an adult volunteer (and maybe only spent the day), you are going to see museums in a new light. You’re going to know what I know: that this is a sacred space, and it is challenging, rewarding, and sublimely beautiful.

But I can admit, it doesn’t always feel that way.

Museum School is a special place. We work hard to make sure that students grow to see the museum, and in turn themselves, in new ways. We want you to keep having special experiences here, but we know that it’s not always easy.

Museums require a skill set, just like most public spaces. Sure anyone can blunder through a shopping mall, but there’s a difference between the person who spends 20 minutes there, and the person who spends 6 hours. I’m not necessarily suggesting that you spend 6 hours in every museum, but at the very least, I’d like to help you get what you want, find the deals, and always know where the closest washroom is before you go (I’m still using the mall metaphor here, I’m sure you can find the washroom).

You’ve built part of your skill set to enjoy and get the most out of your museum experience while at Museum School. But next time you come it’ll be without the support and scaffolding of the program. So I’ve put together a few notes to help you remember what you already know, and make the most of your next museum adventure:

Your visit probably starts before you come; your visit to the museum will be a bit more interesting if you look at what’s on display, and learn a bit about what you want to see. Knowing things like to social context of the period, or even the textbook definitions of some of the techniques or influences will make your experience much more rewarding.

Don’t try to see everything; just don’t set yourself up for that kind of failure! Most museums take several visits to see the whole collection, and even small museums may take awhile to really appreciate and know. This connects to the previous point. When you walk in, know what you’re most interested to see, and don’t worry about visiting too much in one day.

Remember, it’s quality over quantity; museums generally keep 10% of their collection on view at any one time. They don’t even let you see all of it -never mind expect that you’re going to try to on one visit! Aim to have an engaging experience with a few galleries or pieces. (This is a pro tip if you’re visiting a museum on vacation. You still get to tick it off your bucket list, but you don’t need to pressure yourself into spending the whole day at the Met and missing the DIA Dirt Room or the Cyclone at Coney).

Don’t be intimidated. Art is for everyone. There is no wrong way appreciate a work of art (our security guards might want me to mention, at a distance of about 30 cm… but other than that… no wrong way!) Whatever you see in a piece is what is there. And that’s enough sometimes. Of course, the more you know about the history, connections, artist, genre etc. etc. etc. the more rich the work becomes.. but there is more than enough meaning in most pieces to just appreciate for its own sake. When my mom and I go to a gallery together, we look for the works that have animals in them. You might appreciate colors, or trees… no wrong way.

And lastly… (yes I’ve saved the best…) Challenge yourself. Look deeply at something that doesn’t appeal to you. Pull out that phone and research something or someone you know nothing about. Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Look inside yourself and ask “how do I really feel?” (eep!)

Challenges make our experiences more memorable. As we do our closing ceremony in Museum School usually we will teach the students how to use the singing bowl. They’ve gotten used to hearing us use it when we’d like their attention, and then it’s their turn to command the bowl (and our attention) when we close. But there’s a specific way to use it, and the combination of trying something new and being in front of a group of peers makes the task seem much more challenging that it really is. But in doing that, we help the students remember the experience, and everything they’ve said in our closing circle.

Some remember it so well, that they come racing home and ask you to take them to a museum.

Importance in Art

Sometimes a piece of art just movies you.

One day, when I was prowling around Art of Asia, no doubt looking for a young person to question and harass into deeper thought ;) I spotted a really beautiful sculpture. Actually, I had just left a student who was sketching a lion, which I mistakenly called a dog, and was laughed at. It happens.

So I’m walking my way from this Liog, trying to regain my composure, and I spot it. Before I tell you what it is… let me read the label. Fool me twice eh?

I don’t know what it was, but something just drew me to it. Let me tell you about what I saw.

The sculpture was a small figure, almost cherub like, with wide swirls of hair like pasta. Despite its size, it looked strong; legs apart, sturdy, with one arm outstretched. Clearly it’s very old. Showing signs of wear and deterioration over time. It’s a human like form, but there’s something otherworldly about it too. A body made for a specific purpose, in perfect proportion, to stand and hold that one arm up. Like much of the Glenbow’s Art of Asia collection, the contours of the body have a round fullness to them and a distinctive feel and tone, much different from the realism of Roman sculpture of the same era.

Turns out, it’s a Dwarf, an attendant, from Nepal, and made some time in the 10th century. And, it turns out, it’s missing someone.

This dwarf is one of a pair.

The other one lives at the LA County Museum (wonderful! Go if you can!)

I wonder if they miss each other.

This is an interesting piece of art. It’s got a significance culturally, historically, and socially as well. It says a lot about the world we live in, as well as our institutions, and our culture, that we can come to own important objects such as this one and display them so far from their home.

But objects also have personal significance. This one drew me in, now I’ve written about it, and it takes on a new importance to me and everyone who reads this (hi mom!)

But, maybe they have an importance specifically their own.

Does it matter that they are apart?

Is that yearning for lost love that I see on the Dwarf’s face? (As I write this, someone in Nepal is shivering with disgust at my cultural blunders).

But we in museums must weigh importance.

How much value can we create out of one Dwarf? The answer needs to be: more than it would garner anywhere else. There are so many other important places for this dwarf to be, (maybe not with its partner…I get that wood is probably not capable of love but you never know) but maybe in other places, where other people might need it too.

Bus since it is here, we work hard to make sure that the young people in Museum School really, really see it.

P.S. Here’s a link to see the Dwarf at LACMA… The moment when I found it was a very good one. Have a look at this link, then come in to the museum for your own moment.