Category Archives: Reviews

Inside Out

I spent the weekend in New York City in February, battling a cold and attending the Versions 2017 conference at the New Museum. Hats off to Julia Kaganskiy and the crew that assembled such an impressive array of speakers working in VR. I’ll recap that event another time, because I’ve been thinking about something else that happened on that trip.

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Pierre Chareau at the Jewish Museum. I loved the aesthetic of having everything positioned on faux backdrops

While we were there, we went to the Pierre Chareau exhibition at the Jewish Museum. It’s a small show, comprised mainly of furniture pieces designed by the French architect/interior designer. While I went there specifically to see how they used VR headsets in the exhibition, I was more intrigued by some of the presentation choices made by the exhibition designers and how they do (or don’t) increase visitors’ appreciation of the topic.

Hide and seek

Chareau was a hard show to navigate. I never once felt that I’d built a mental map of the layout, even after I’d finished. It was an intentional choice, too. The exhibition is a typical black box space, and the designers used hanging white curved partitions that look like photographers’ cycs to frame many of the furniture objects, and block your view of them as you walk through the gallery. On the backs of these are projections of silhouettes of people engaging in everyday domestic activities; a woman brushing her hair at a mirror, a man writing at a desk. When you get to the other side of the partition, you can see the actual furniture and (hopefully) realize that it is the same as the objects in the “shadows”.  The shadow effect bugged me a bit at first, since they aren’t really shadows; the walls are solid and opaque. Since it’s hard to see the projection and the actual furniture at the same time, it took me a couple of times to confirm that it was actually corresponding to the specific objects on the other side, and not just being evocative. The “shadow” effect grew on me, though, since it injected a human presence into what could have been a very clinical, impersonal space. The maze-like quality never grew on me.

Embracing the theatrical

I did appreciate the outright theatricality of the design. It reminded me of wandering around through Sleep No More in some ways. The museum did a good job of concealing and revealing just enough to lead me through the space and get me to recognize that there was something on the other side of every wall, know a tiny bit about it, and still have a little “aha” moment when I got to each display. I wrote about embracing theatricality in exhibitions earlier as part of a series of posts on making a museum from scratch, and this was an effective demonstration.

Guarding the magic

I was in town for a virtual reality conference, and VR was why I was at the Jewish Museum. I’ve been interested in finding examples of VR implementations that line up with reality and don’t just discard it in favor of virtuality, and here I thought the Chareau exhibition really delivered. While I’m on the fence about the exhibition as whole, the VR exhibit really embodied the spirit of one of my favorite manifestos on making exhibitions, the Medical Museion in Copenhagen’s “A manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions“. I’ve recommended it before and I’ll do so again, and despite the title, I believe the philosophy espoused within it is broadly applicable to museums of all stripes. Thesis 6 of the manifesto is titled, “Jealously guard a place for mystery and wonder” and suggests that we deliberately “…include some exhibits about which less, rather than more, is known – curious exhibits that just cannot completely be accounted for.”

In the center of the gallery there were four vignettes of furniture from Chareau houses, in a typically Modernist setting; monotone and empty. In front of each vignette was a stool with an attached shelf, holding a Samsung headset and a long cord. When you held up the headset and looked through it, you got magic. The same furniture in front of you was there, in the same orientation, but around it was an “evocation” (museum jargon for “We couldn’t be completely certain that this is 100% exactly the way it looked”) of the interior of the house the furniture was made to go in. This is an issue we often deal with; how close to complete fidelity do you have to get in order for something to be “museum quality”? I was glad the Jewish Museum opted to go for it and build a believable, complete VR environment. Carpets on floors, bookcases full of books, afternoon sun pouring in through banks of windows. Quite a change from a dark room on the Upper East Side!

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Me looking the ceiling or something.

Of course, you weren’t seeing the actual furniture, you were seeing extremely high-fidelity 3D models of that furniture in a computer model of a space, but the designers went to the trouble of making sure both sets of furniture were in the same orientation, and that if you were facing the furniture, the virtual furniture was in the center of the field of view in your headset. I saw a couple of different visitors look at the furniture, look into the headset, then look back at the furniture and back at the headset before doing the usual dance of people in a VR environment, lazily spinning and looking all around.  The VR augmented the physical furniture without supplanting it, and the experience provided visitors with a tasty snack, a peek into another context that wasn’t weighted down with explanations or demonstrations.

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The stool with built-in shelf to hold the headset was a nice design element.

We had talked about doing the same kind of experience for our upcoming Ocean Liners exhibition, but abandoned the idea because of the low throughput of these kinds of headset experiences. In a small, quiet gallery it’s one thing. In a 10,000 square foot exhibition with hundreds of objects, and (hopefully) many thousands of visitors, it would be a bottleneck.

When showing isn’t telling

After the pleasure of using good VR, I was excited to learn more about Maison de Verre (The Glass House), Chareau’s most famous work. The sign on the door to an adjacent space told me that this house was unique in ways that traditional architectural models couldn’t convey. I entered, not knowing what that meant, other than I probably wasn’t going to see a physical model of the house, but something much, much cooler.

What I saw was a projection screen displaying an elevation of a house hanging in the center of the space over a floorplan and a video of a woman opening a closet playing on one wall of the space. As I tried to figure out what I should be looking at I noticed several things. The projection screen was moving towards me with an ominous jerky, creaking, sound. As it moved, a laser line on the floorpan moved as well. It dawned on me that I was seeing a cross section of the house at the position of the laser line on the floorpan. Indeed a room on the screen highlighted and a new video popped up on the opposite wall of a man looking for a book.  This continued for several minutes, with the screen lurching slowly backwards and forwards, pausing and playing a video of languorous French people moving around in side a space that “evoked” the Maison de Verre.

What didn’t work for me

I spend a fair bit of time looking at floorpans and elevations for work, so I have learned how to read them, but even with that experience it took me an unacceptably long time to realize that what I was seeing on the projection screen was essentially a CT scan through the middle of Maison de Verre. And having looked at my share of CT scans, I can confidently say that they are a tough form of visualization to get accustomed to. And I was better off than most of the people in the room with me at the time. Most people ignored the screen and the floorpan and waited patiently for the next video to appear. Which is a shame, since so much effort obviously went into building a high-fidelity 3D model of the house. It was visually pleasing to watch the building on the projection screen disappear as the vantage point shifted, but I didn’t get any sense of how the building was architecturally different, and certainly no sense of how the whole series of spaces connected and flowed into each other. I felt like I’d been promised a revelation and given a cipher instead.

As we were leaving the gallery I found the sign that told me that Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro designed the exhibition, which answered a lot of my nagging questions. I could easily see how an architecture firm could think that the public would “get” a confusing architectural way of looking at a domestic space. DSR also designed the Charles James exhibition at the Met, which had the dubious honor of being the last exhibition to actually make me mad at the designers. If you didn’t see it, it’s hard to explain, but it involved ball dresses and cameras on robot arms that supposedly gave you close up views of the dresses, but really just played canned video loops as the arms waved around the space like Ballet Robotique.

It was a fascinating show, and I was glad to have seen it. It’s one of the best uses of virtual reality in an exhibition I’ve seen, and the design choices made on the whole made what could have been a fairly dry examination of the subject an evocative, and, yes, immersive one at that.

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The culture wars

If you’ve read my blog for any period of time, you’ve doubtless witnessed the occasions where I find myself scratching my head at what cultural commentators have to say about museums in very public forums. Philip Kennicott, Judith Dobrzynski, Ellen Gamerman, the list goes on and on…

Another salvo was fired earlier in the week. Tiffany Jenkins, a regular commentator to the Scotsman and other papers, wrote a blog post titled “Who Owns Culture?” for the Oxford University Press blog. She’s also written a book “Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums – And Why They Should Stay There” which promises to be a full-throated defense of the status quo of 20th century Western museum philosophy. I won’t bore you with a synopsis of her post. Read it yourselves.

The thing I really want you to do is read Courtney Johnston’s reflection on it. Johnston, the Directory of the Dowse Art Museum in New Zealand, and a pretty bright star in my personal pantheon of museum thinkers, gives a deeply thoughtful response to, and rejection of Jenkins’ arguments that is eloquent, passionate, and so free of the vitriol that is my usual first response to arrogance masquerading as concern. Reading what smart people with different viewpoints have to say is a pillar of my professional practice. Museums, as public institutions (whether they’re publicly or privately operated) have to be able to engage with the larger discourses happening in society. That doesn’t make it easy to hear, and doing it respectfully and honestly, ain’t easy. It’s far easier to mock, eg. most of the Internet. Johnston’s post is a wonderful example of how grown-ups do it.

Stop reading this now and read Courtney’s post, OK? Here’s the link again. Go now. These are important, indeed foundational issues, and how we respond will shape museum practice in the coming century. Thanks!

Link

I, robot

I wrote a short piece for PEM’s blog on my brief stint as a robot at MCN2014. You can find it here: I, robot.

Highlights from MCN 2014

I’ve been meaning to write up a recap of my experience at MCN 2014 for some time, but am only now getting around to unearthing my notes and pictures.

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I was one of the conference program co-chairs, along with Morgan Holzer from NYPL, and had spent the better part of 2014 getting ready for this party to start. And one of the biggest takeaways I had was that I find it harder to be in the moment when I’ve had a hand in setting up the program. Like the host at a party worrying if the guests are having a good time, I spent a lot of time shuttling back and forth between sessions, poking into workshops, and constantly taking the pulse of the conference to see if there was anything that needed doing. And it felt good to have care of the event in that way, but it was very different than just being there as an attendee. In many ways, this was the perfect bookend to my visit to MW 2012, when I didn’t go to any sessions and just sat in the lobby of the conference hotel for a day. So, what was the 30,000 foot view like?

Conference Highlights

If you want a quick promo for the conference, check out this snazzy highlight video.

For the Record…

MCN has been getting more and more into capturing and disseminating video of presentations and I actually find myself going back to them in ways I didn’t think I would a couple of years ago. The MCN YouTube channel is worth a visit. Papers rarely capture the performative aspects of a public reading, slide decks are usually woefully incomplete, and neither capture the dialogue that occurs. So I’m glad that the investment in video continues to grow and hope you find it useful to your work.

Ignite on-site

The first night Ignite talks have become one of the cornerstones of the MCN conference. They deliver a jolt of energy to the proceedings that is hard to beat. The format is a tough one, and the hardy souls who volunteer to do it are inspirations to us all. Normally, we’ve had to go off-site to find a venue that is set up with a stage, the right AV system, booze, and the ability to accommodate a couple hundred people. Luckily, this year we didn’t have to pile into buses and go to a bar.  One of the most unusual features of the Fairmont Dallas hotel as a conference venue was the Venetian Room. Think early 1970s glitz, and you’ve got it.

The Venetian Room, courtesy of Fairmont Hotels

The Venetian Room, courtesy of Fairmont Hotels

Robert Goulet was the first performer to grace the stage, Sonny and Cher played there, Ike and Tina Turner, etc. And it was right in the building!

The curtain on the Venetian Room stage. Swanky!

The curtain on the Venetian Room stage. Swanky!

So swanky, I bought a tux to go with it.

So swanky, I bought a tux to go with it.

Two presentations really stood out for me. Max Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art (you should follow him on Twitter if you don’t already) delivered a no-holds-barred talk on how art museum directors think. It was full of insight into the issues directors are faced with, and especially cutting in regard to how they view digital technologies and staff who want to innovate. If you’ve wondered “What does my director really think about?” check it out.

Greb Albers from the Getty had the unenviable job of batting cleanup (going last for you non-baseball fans) and not only gave a great performance, but gave the conference it’s first (and most inspirational) meme. For the rest of the conference, I heard people exhorting each other to “be tugboats”. Watch the talk, you’ll get it.

The Keynote

 Lance Weiler, filmaker, writer, teacher, and incredibly promiscuous collaborator gave a great, provoking keynote on storytelling and technology, drawn almost entirely from his own impressive body of work. If you haven’t seen works like Bear 71, you really should. Incredible stuff. The whole talk is worth a watch.

One of the most interesting parts of his talk was the “Five Times Why” exercise he made all 400 people do. Everyone was given cards, pencils and told to find a partner they didn’t know. They would then ask them the question “Why are you here?” five times, record each answer and then write a summary of why that person had come. Then they’d switch roles. It was a great ice breaker! As an unintended bonus, we collected all the cards and spent part of the last day coding the responses. Some very interesting insights will help us with next year’s conference.

The Layer of Chaos and the joy of HOMAGO

One of the things I like most about museum technology events is that they tend to be HOMAGO kinds of affairs.If you’re not familiar with the term, HOMAGO stands for Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, and is an experiential learning theory expounded by Mimi Ito, and popular in digital media and learning circles. It’s social, peer-oriented, and interest-driven. HOMAGO is generally used in youth experience contexts to describe the ways they make sense out of the constantly evolving sea of new ways to be and create that digital media present. I think that same spirit underlies both the formal *and* informal making opportunities that MCN provides to attendees. Our demographic may be a bit older, but the phenomenon feels the same to me.

The energy in the workshops was great to see. People learned to use microontrollers and sensors and actually make physical stuff.

The Arduino workshop

The Arduino workshop

The conference workshops certainly had that spirit, but the Layer of Chaos, MCN’s three year-old collaboration with New Mexico Highlands University and the Parachute Factory makerspace, really embodies that spirit and runs with it. Part artist residency, part drop-in program, part adult fun night, the Layer of Chaos has it all. Great peer-to-peer opportunities to engage with new technologies, lots of alcohol-aided socializing, and can-do experimentation that is a great creative lubricant. I can’t wait to see what they come up with for Minneapolis this November. This year’s theme, the MuseTech Shipwreck, was partly my fault, so I got the task of welcoming attendees to the opening of the Layer of Chaos. There were interactive light and sound installations, an visitor-operated barrel of rum (you had to hit a target with retrofitted light guns fr old consoles) and a dancing skeleton made from a pico projector, ultrasonic humidifier and a bunch of drinking straws.

The High and the Low Tech

William Gibson wrote that “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” And that was in evidence at MCN. There were the obligatory high tech devices, like the Beam telepresence robot I got to test drive around the Exhibit Hall. But there were also great examples of low tech solutions. Google Cardboard, their “turn your Android phone into a 1970s Viewmaster” was a surprisingly successful product. Even with an iPhone, I was able to enjoy most of the experience, and get a sense of the kinds of things we can expect to see from the Google Cultural Institute Lab in Paris.

Look, ma! I'm a robot!

Look, ma! I’m a robot!

Google cardboard. The advance mechanism (only works w Android phones) is just a washer and a magnet.  Genius!

Google cardboard. The advance mechanism (only works w Android phones) is just a washer and a magnet. Genius!

It’s the future in here!

The MCN 2014 Scholars. What an inspiring group!

The MCN 2014 Scholars. What an inspiring group!

 Most random moment

I was in the Exhibit Hall and turned around to see Leo, Douglas, Loic, and Don talking. Nothing unusual there, except Don was actually in France, not Dallas, and was using a telepresence robot to hang out with us. That kinda stuff happens at MCN. You should come this year. It’ll be a blast!

3 folks in Dallas, one in France

3 folks in Dallas, one in France

“Outsourcing” the curatorial impulse, Part Two

Curation, stuff, people, meanings. Fear of change vs fear of irrelevance. Framing debates and the need for new frames. That was Part One of this series in a nutshell. Getting through it without answering snark with more snark was more of a challenge than I expected, so what had been one really long post with a happy ending got split into two posts. For background framing of the curation/participation issue, go back and read it. It features a picture from I Can Haz Cheezeburger, so it’s worth it.

In this post, I’d like to look more at examples of work people are doing that take on issues around curation, and maybe serve as exemplars. I’ll start with some provocative thoughts that are a wonderful antidote to the pearl-clutching tone of some of the other recent articles, then we’ll finally explore two of the smallest museums that I referenced at the beginning of Part One.

Let your voice be heard!

Lolly Hopkins cheers on the Braves with megaphone. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image from Boston Public Library

Lolly Hopkins cheers on the Braves with megaphone.
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image from Boston Public Library

In response to my first post, Seb Chan from Cooper Hewitt offered another possible way forward: clearer voice, than the standard 20th century disembodied “institutional voice” that is still prevalent in the field. I’m just going to repost big chunks of it because it’s that good:

“My view is increasingly that museums need opinions, and that means that more than ever their exhibitions benefit from being opinionated. Sometimes the opinion that needs to be stated is that of those voices least frequently heard in museums (some – but not all – participatory exhibit projects might fall into this category) and well served by ‘community sourcing’, but other times it’s a need to have an upfront, loud, curatorial voice.”

I think this perceived lack of voice often afflicts participatory projects, which is why they get characterized as messy and chaotic. The Memory Jars project at the Museum of Art and History at Santa Cruz or Object Stories at Portland Art Museum I think ar egood examples of projects where visitors’ voices come through loud and clear, which may be why I like them. The perceived lack of loud curatorial voices reminded me of Max Anderson’s 2011 “The Crisis in Art History: Ten Problems, Ten Solutions” which included this gem, “One solution is for art historians and curators to devote more pages and column inches to explaining why art matters and why it should move us, and to be less patronizing about the relevance of our discipline just because the public does not see the point.” Amen, brother!

And lest you start feeling smug, I think that admonition applies to us all, not just art historians. If your audience doesn’t get what you’re doing, is it the audience’s fault, or your museum’s?

Interpreting the language of objects
This communication problem ties into the curation/participation dynamic. Often, the adherents of traditional practice take a dim view of interpretation of any stripe. They want straight curatorial wisdom and nothing else. “Let the objects speak for themselves” is a refrain I’ve heard more than once. And I think it’s all well and good, if your audience is an already-informed one, like say art critics, and fellow museum professionals. If the audience includes people who don’t already speak that language (be it art, or science, or history, or whatever), then not so well. Seb, in his comment,  continued,

“The big caveat being that that voice needs to be able to heard and understood by a significant proportion of the visitors to be valuable (cue “more interpretation”, “better exhibition design”, “exhibition design as coherent argument”, “audience research” etc). Curation has to be more than just ‘choosing’. When its done well, it is, and obviously so. Too often what is celebrated by those against more participatory activities in museums are opaque exhibitions with curatorial arguments obfuscated with a thick dose of International Art English.”

I agree completely. Curation as a form of sense-making requires strong interpretation. Regan Forrest published a great, short post on the language of objects [http://reganforrest.com/2014/10/the-language-of-objects/] that picked apart this question of interpretation that’s worth reading. She notes that ,

“the ‘objects are mute’ vs ‘objects speak for themselves’ debate may be missing an important nuance: perhaps objects do speak, at least some of the time, although we as visitors may not necessarily be conversant in the language any given object speaks. And if not, the object is as good as mute to us.”

I like the model of the “language of objects” being spoken with a strong voice, and interpreted for an audience who may not be fluent in that language. Unfortunately, interpretation often gets a bad reputation as “pandering”. I wrote about this almost exactly a year ago and the world hasn’t progressed far since then.  Regan Forrest and I bounced the idea back and forth across a couple of blog posts, in which she asked the question,  When does interpretation cross the line from mediation – providing a hook or a link between audiences and content – into interference: “over-interpretation”, where it’s simply getting in the way of a meaningful experience? Does this line shift depending on the audience? On the subject matter? Whether its science or its art?” Striking that balance is hard. Which made me wonder about other interesting models people are pursuing that come at curation in interesting ways.

Here are two examples that were at my famers market last weekend. One thing that unites the two is that both try to take the museum experience outside of the museum and meet visitors where they already are, and invert the model of the visit. Another is their clear, definitely opinionated curatorial stance.

The Mµseum

The Mµseum opened in 2010 in Union Square, not far from my house. Billed as the world’s smallest museum, it occupies a niche in a wall between a sub shop and a restaurant in a busy pedestrian square. Judith Krausner and Steve Pomeroy wanted a way to showcase the works of regional artists in an intimate setting that was also free of the constraints of getting into a gallery or museum space. Why not make a space where people already were, and bring the museum experience to them? Thus was born the Mµseum.

Go to their website and you’ll see their program, though truly tiny in scale, has all the hallmarks of a traditional museum endeavor, and boasts a very clear voice. Their statement about “accessibility” reads, We want art to be something that is approachable to everyone. By bringing art right up to the viewer, in an unstaffed, pressure-free environment (a place you’d be anyway, just walking down the street!), we hope to make art both physically and psychologically approachable.” They want people walking down the street to stop and see some art made by artists working in the area. Somerville, MA apparently has the largest number of working artists per capita of any municipality in the United States, so there’s no shortage of materials.

The Mobile Museum of American Artifacts

The MMoAA parked the the Union Square Farmers' Market in Somerville, MA

The MMoAA parked the the Union Square Farmers’ Market in Somerville, MA

The Mobile Museum of American Artifacts is the brainchild of Laurelin Kruse, a California-based artist and arts educator. After a brief stint at the Calder Foundation, she became fascinated by the way a single person’s life could become the focus of so many people’s work; collecting, cataloguing, conserving every little scrap, no matter how quotidian. What about the artiacts of ordinany Americans, the countless stories and lives that surround us? Who was going to find, collect *their* objects and stories? Thus was MMoAA born, and it’s curator.

After finding a suitable gallery space (a converted 1968 Cardinal camper), and kickstarting its retrofitting, Kruse set out from California, stopping along the way for brief periods of time, setting up shop, and soliciting objects and stories. By the time we met in Somerville, she’d already been across the country once, and was preparing to lay up for the winter before setting out west again.   The Museum, big enough to hold three or four adults comfortably, can be visited in a few minutes, more if you use the video booth. Though she’s collected quite a bit, the exhibition is well laid out; not too many objects, labels that tell a complete story quickly. They hint at the lives that intersected with them, and some are quite powerful; a bundle of love letters from the 1910s, found in the attic of a house, bits of soap made by a woman with her long-dead grandmother during yearly summer visits, now long past. A knife given by a junkie to the bus driver who drove him to rehab. These little narratives

The MMoAA, like the Mµseum, the Museum of Broken Relationships, and others, I think reflects the current increase in interest in curation as a democratizing force and a counter-narrative to the perceived aloofness of museums as institutions. They all say “This happened! It was important to the people involved!”, the same impulse as Kennicott’s “struggle against oblivion”.

What are other examples you’ve come across that are innovative models of modern curation?

 

“Outsourcing” the curatorial impulse, Part One

This past Saturday, my lovely and talented wife and I made our weekly trek to the local farmers’ market in Union Square, Somerville. It is, I think, the best market in the Boston area, and draws not just local farmers, but all kinds of craftspeople. You never know who you’re going to meet there. And this weekend I met a mobile museum and it’s curator. Union Square already boasts one museum, so it was even nicer to have two museums for a day. And talking with the curator about her project brought together a number of ideas that had been battling in my head since the latest wave of “How to properly visit art museums” articles crashed over us. I talked about them here and here.

So what I’d like to do is beg your indulgence while I touch on some of the recent articles about museums’  use/abuse of participation in traditional curatorial preserves, unpack their premise of curation and participation as dialectically related principles, problematize that concept a bit, and then in the next post look at two recent examples of museums that embody (some might say appropriate) the best ideals of curation in ways that don’t look like traditional museums.

Oh, and in case you missed it, both museums were located at my famers’ market. Two! How’s that for awesome?!

Curation – Fad and Fact

Curator Anne Pontégnie at Kelley Walker's exhibition (Wiels contemporary art center, Brussels, B). CC BY-SA 3.0 image fr Wikimedia Commons by Marcwathieu

Curator Anne Pontégnie at Kelley Walker exhibition in Brussels
CC BY-SA 3.0 image fr Wikimedia Commons by Marcwathieu

The sudden rise in prominence of the term “curation” over the past few years has been both amazing and distressing to many in the museum field. What was once the arcane domain of a privileged few is now open to seemingly everyone, especially on the Internet. And that raises some interesting existential questions about that core museum activity. What does curation mean in the 21st century, who gets to do it, and why is it OK/not OK?

The word “curator” (and its back formation “to curate”) comes from the Latin verb curare “to take care of” which points at curators’ original roles as the persons primarily responsible for the collections under their care. As museums have institutionalized and professionalized, large parts of those tasks have moved to specialists. We now have registrars, conservators, handlers, security staff, and more who all “take care of” museum objects. What’s left to curators? Acquistion, research, exhibition and more. If I had to characterize the essence of present-day curation, it would be “sense-making”. Curators assemble collections and contextualize them to tell us something important. In a world so full of information and inputs, making sense of it, ordering it, and deciding what is important to focus on and what isn’t, are valuable skills to cultivate. So, I’d think that teaching visitors the importance of that skill, and giving them practice in doing it would seem to be a clear winner among the opinion renderers and arbiters. Not so…

“Outsourcing” the curatorial impulse

Outsourcing  CC BY-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user icanhascheezburger

Outsourcing
CC BY-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user icanhascheezburger

“Not an art expert? Not a problem. Museums are increasingly outsourcing the curation of their exhibits to the public—sometimes even asking the crowd to contribute art, too. The institutions produce quick and often inexpensive shows that boost ticket sales. As crowdsourcing initiatives go mainstream, the roles of the museum and the artist are getting rethought. It’s no longer only the highly trained professionals who decide what belongs on the gallery wall, but the audience, too.”

Thus begins Ellen Gamerman’s Wall Street Journal piece called “Everybody’s an Art Curator” which provoked me enormously, as we’ll get into below, but also really put into sharp relief the mindset of people who are upset by different (read, non-mid-20th-century) models of how museums might engage in creating the things they exhibit to visitors. And Gamerman’s paragraph hit the nail right on the head in the way it uses the term “outsourcing” when it’s really talking about “crowdsourcing”.  And that idea, the idea that letting visitors engage in that part of curatorial process is the same as not having any curatorial involvement is, I think, at the heart of many of the complaints lodged against participatory projects. Outsourced=getting somebody else to do it for you, and also carries all those icky financial perjoratives of trying to not pay somebody skilled when you can pay somebody else who’s willing to do it for less. In everyday English, I can’t think of a context in which outsourcing is used in anything other than pejorative way.

Everybody’s an Art Curator?
Well, no. But everybody could learn about curation.

My problems with Gamerman’s article are many, but they break down into a few large clumps. There’s this false tension between scholarship and popularity/financial gain, a ton of generational baiting, and lastly, some fascinating observations about the museum industry today.

Scholarship versus popularity

Left: "EL Sukenik 1951" by Department of Archaeology, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem CC BY 3.0 image via Wikimedia Commons  Right: Doll popularity contest CC BY 2.0 image via Flickr user West Vancouver Archives

Left: “EL Sukenik 1951” by Department of Archaeology, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem
CC BY 3.0 image via Wikimedia Commons
Right: Doll popularity contest
CC BY 2.0 image via Flickr user West Vancouver Archives

One of the most damaging insinuations of the piece is that visitor involvement equals curtorial absence. In discussing the MFA’s recent “Boston Loves Impressionism” exhibition, where the museum’s curators handpicked a pool of Impressionist works for the public to look at and choose their favorites, Gamerman chooses to frame the process in terms of the MFA deciding it was “acceptable” because of this curatorial involvement. Not that it was a good idea, and an opportunity to raise public awareness of how the museum does its work. Just “acceptable”, like a vegetable offered to a balky child.

To support this, she asks Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles whether this was an acceptable idea. “You’re left with 10 paintings that may or may not make sense together, or may or may not be interesting together, or may or may not teach anything about the history of art—it’s not the stuff of knowledge or scholarship,” This of course assumes that the curator at the MFA did a terrible job of choosing the 50 works selected (from which 30 were selected) and that nobody at the MFA did anything other than hang those works wihout any attempt to provide context. I think there is a valid concern about how *much* scholarship goes into exhibitions deemed to be blockbusters, but Molesworth’s position strains credulity.

Former MAH curator Susan Leask quit because “she grew discouraged after the director asked for more ‘spontaneous exhibitions’ rather than shows that took deeper thought and up to a year to develop”. The kinds of shows director Nina Simon wanted more of included an exhibition on collecting “an event so popular she hopes to repeat it” but rather than discuss the merits of the concept, Gamerman informs us that it “featured contributions from residents that included an array of historic American flags and an assortment of dryer lint.” Get it? Curators=scholarship+thought. Participation=dryer lint+popularity.

This is by no means an isolated view. This notion that *any* audience involvement means complete loss of curatorial control is supposed to be widespread. According to Molesworth, “When museum crowdsourcing is raised privately among curators, she said, the subject prompts a reaction of ‘silent dismay.'” And there’s a big problem – the silence of the curators.

The silence of the curators

Silence CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Alberto Ortiz

Silence
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Alberto Ortiz

If you’ve read any of the opinion pieces that have come out in the past few years about the state of museums and their attempts to stay relevant, you often find traditionalists pitted against progressive practitioners. On the traditionalist side you find commentators, usually outside of the field but allied to it – art critics, journalists and the like – sneering at projects that upset traditional practice. And on the other side, you will usually hear museum directors, and other staff with weird job titles with words like “engagement” “audience” and “digital” in them.

Where are the curatorial voices in this? All too often, they are silent, or only talking amongst themselves. Molesworth and Leask, two curators interviewed in Gamerman’s piece are such exceptions, that Judith Dobrzynski goes so far as to call them “brave” in a recent Real Clear Arts blogpost for standing up to the juggernaut of political correctness.  Projects like Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One is a clear outlier, where they mobilized staff from across the institution to conceive, develop and interpret an ambitious attempt to interact with their audience in new ways, and then act as spokespeople for the project and museum. Would that were more of them.

If you have any good examples of curators out in public engaging with these issues, I’d love to hear about them.

Let’s be clear, though. Molesworth’s and the silent curators’ dismay is not entirely unfounded. I think if you were to look at a large sample of museum projects with participatory elements, you’d find plenty that had poorly thought out and articulated goals and dubious educational value. Which is something that the field as a whole could stand to look at closely. If the debate about the value of participatory projects is to be answered, it has to be answered with evidence that these projects achieve institutional goals as well as, if not better than, traditonally produced projects. And that evidnece is hard to come by, in my experience, in anything other than really coarse measures like attendance, and anecdotal reports of “engagement”.

Send me studies, if you know of them.

A little ageism, anyone?

Get Off My Lawn by Deviantart user Karkan

Get Off My Lawn
by Deviantart user Karkan

I have to say I was particularly dismayed that the author chose to introduce Nina Simon as, “a 33-year-old former engineer with corkscrew hair, a treehouse tattoo that matches her husband’s and a 14-month-old daughter named Rocket” when no other person in the article was treated to the same kind of physical scrutiny. The implication seems to be that her age, and non-mainstream appearance means she’s “not one of the club”. It is worth noting, that the only time age gets mentioned by Ms Gamerman is in the discussion of MAH. Simon is 33. Her new curator is 32. An artist who clashed with Simon is 55, and Susan Leask, the former curator who quit rather than work on Hack the Museum is 66 and “has worked as a curator for 25 years”. Why aren’t we treated to descriptions of anyone else’s hair? Nina’s hair is indeed very, very curly, but it’s a needless bit of snark more at home in a Buzzfeed or Jezebel article than the WSJ, and does nothing to advance the argument of the piece.

Oh yeah, and the illustration shows a chaotic, messy gallery full of people not silently communing with individual works of art. It’s a salon style hang, too. Many of the people look young, too.

I know that has nothing to do with the author and is a job assigned to a graphic designer by the paper’s editors after the article written. I had some back and forth with Dobrzynski about an earlier Times op-ed she’d written, with a similar kind of illustration. Her defense was that she had nothing to do with the image and it didn’t represent her writing. That may well be, but I also know that if people closest to the story and the author figure that it’s an accurate representation of the piece and publish it, then it’s fair game.

What does it say about us?
Probably the biggest takeaway a novice museumgoer might glean from the article is that there’s this conflict going on in museums between curators and people interested in art and learning on one side, and young popularists, interested in…something… on the other side. The dominant narrative is that proponents of participatory projects are only interested in getting bodies in the door.  The existential threat of declining participation in cultural organizations like museums is real and many institutions struggle. A director might be forgiven if she prioritized keeping the place open over scholarship, but the implication is clear that the pendulum has swung too far towards visitors in too many museums, such that curators are rendered speechless and impotent to change it. The less charitable frame the whole thing as a scam or a sham put over on gullible publics by heartless administrators who only want to cash in and don’t give a hoot about any of the rigor or scholarship that has defined art museums in the 20th century.  They seem to be the most active unfortunately.

In Philip Kennicott’s Washington Post piece, among other gems that he offered the museum going readership was the exhortation not to “waste your time with educators who indulge the time-wasting sham of endless questions about what you are feeling and thinking.” This was merely one of the “deceptive promises made by our stewards of culture”.

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight and blogger Lee @culturegrrl Rosenbaum recently tweeted at each other about  the “scam” that participation really is.

I’ll leave it to your imaginations to guess what Judith Dobrzynski thinks of this.

For me, the biggest takeaway from this (aside from disbelief that educated, career museumgoers could have so little understanding of how museums actually function) is that the field has done a lousy job of making the case for or against participatory projects as educationally valid experiences. The proponents of involving visitors need to be driving the conversation past talk of popularity, and “engagement” and the alleged cohort of silently dismayed curators (and others) who view this as a betrayal need to press hard for evidence that these projects deliver.

And maybe I need to read fewer op-eds…

If I’m missing important work that’s being done, do let me know. This stuff deserves some real discussion.

I’ll try to wrap it up tomorrow. This was getting too long for a single blogpost, so stay tuned for a more upbeat look at curation out in the wild.

Responses to Kennicott’s “How to view art”

Responses to Kennicott’s “How to view art: “Be dead serious about it, but don’t expect too much”

As you could tell from my last post, I had a strong negative reaction to Philip Kennicott’s Washington Post article. The incredible pretentiousness of the piece had the predictable effect of spawning responses that are much more amusing takes on the topic, both with their own nuggets of truth in them. And taken in the aggregate, I think there are some important areas of agreement, if you can get through the bile and the snark. So, onwards!

Five Rules for (Kinda) Viewing Art
by Jillian Steinhauer, Hyperallergic

Steinhauer was the first to respond to Kennicott, and her take on his five points often veers into parody, extolling the virtues of plotting your Instagram strategy and quota for a museum visit, and remembering to tweet your lunch. Rather than rebut, or mock, she adopts a millenials version of Kennicott’s agenda for doing a museum visit the right way.Her five to-dos are an interesting comparison to Kennicott’s. They are:

1. Take Time

2. Bring a Friend

3. Go with an Open Mind

4. Don’t Worry Much about Remembering Things

5. Seek Out Art that Fits Your World View

*********************************

How to View Art: However You Want to
By Jen Oleniczak, Huffington Post

Oleniczak, a museum educator, instructor and member of Museum Hack, takes a more welcoming tone, suitable for somebody who tries to engage museum visitors wherever they are in their knowledge of museums and art. Her five how-tos include:

1. Take the time you have

2. Seek your space

3. Just do you

4. Remember in your own way

5. Ignore everything I said

*********************************

The Art of Slowing Down in a Museum
Stephanie Rosenbloom, The New York Times

“There is no right way to experience a museum, of course.”

Rosenbloom never references Kennicott’s piece, and given it’s heft, was probably under construction for some time. However it came about, though, the timing of it is too perfect. Instead of proclaiming, Rosenbloom uses cases studies of the effects of looking slowly at art and its effect on viewers’ sense of well-being. It’s chockablock with good quotes on the impact of a museum visit on people’s health, too. Slow Art Day gets a mention, too. Trying to distill it down to the “top five” format of the others, here’s what I came up with.

1. Don’t try to do everything.

2. Seek out works that dovetail with your interests.

3. Research the museum’s collection online in advance of your visit.

4. Make your own soundtrack at home and take headphones to the museum.

5. Ask yourself “What are the things that, if I do not see them, will leave me feeling as if I didn’t have a New York (or any other city) experience?”

“Sometimes you get more for the price of admission by opting to see less.”

My Top Five

So, what else can I offer that hasn’t already been said? To test that out, I came up with my own Top Five list.

1. Don’t try to do it all.
Bite off less than you think you can manage in the allotted time and see even less if you can.

2. Document what you like
Write it down, imitate it, photograph it, buy the book of it

3. Respond to the art.
Love it, hate it, whatever. Art exists to provoke a response in us. The worst thing you can do an artwork is to feel nothing.

4. Make a connection between the art and your life if you can.
One way you help replenish the aura around art is to find a connection between it and yourself.

5. Come out more informed than you entered.
Nobody ever got a PhD from going to a museum, but you can know more than when you went in.

Slow down!

What can we take from these lists? Well, the big one, of course, is the exhortation to slow down, see fewer objects, and see those objects more closely.

Looking at the Southern Cross

 Fitz Henry Lane (1804–1865), Gloucester, Mass.,  Ship Southern Cross in Boston Harbor, 1851.  Oil on canvas, 25¼ x 38 inches.  Gift of Stephen Wheatland (1987, M18639). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


Fitz Henry Lane (1804–1865), Gloucester, Mass., 
Ship Southern Cross in Boston Harbor, 1851. 
Oil on canvas, 25¼ x 38 inches. 
Gift of Stephen Wheatland (1987, M18639).
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

One of the great delights of working at the Peabody Essex Museum is getting to walk through the galleries and establish a long-term relationship with the objets on display. One of my personal favorites is a painting by the American marine painter Fitz Henry Lane. “Ship Southern Cross in Boston Harbor” depicts a ship slowly making her way out of Boston Harbor on a calm day. I’ve long been a fan of Lane’s and I would always give this painting my time when I first started at the museum. And It seemed to give up new details to me every time I studied it. I used to look just at the ship itself, admiring the care with which the rigging was delineated. Lane was a man who knew his ships.

It wasn’t long til I realized that between the foremast and mainmast I could see the silhouette of the Massachusetts State House in the background, perfectly framed by the rigging. That led to several sessions of looking at the shore, trying to locate the location of the ship, something that would likely have been obvious to mariners of Lane’s day, who were used to looking at Boston from a distance. Later on I noticed the two men rowing in the foreground, hunched in their boat, and that led to mediations on costume. My current fixation is the depiction of the wind, as evidenced by the sails and flags flying on the ships. It’s a light breeze. And so on. My appreciation for the work doesn’t diminish from repeated viewings. Instead, the painting keeps giving me new things to see. Sound familiar? Yup, Kennicott and I (and Steinhauer, Oleniczak, and Rosenbloom, as well as all those educators Kennicott loathes who ask visitors to look at art and say what they see) are in agreement on the importance of looking and slowing down.

Mr. Scudder, the Fish, and Dr. Agassiz

Fish, Wet Specimens lll by Flickr user Curious Expeditions CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Fish, Wet Specimens lll
by Flickr user Curious Expeditions
CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

This emphasis on looking closely reminded me of one of my favorite iOS apps, Fish: A Tap Essay by Robin Sloan. The app is really a meditation on mindfulness, or “the difference between liking something on the Internet and loving something on the Internet.” You should just go download it and try it now. Come back when you’re done, OK? It’s worth it.

Sloan’s text is based on a famous story of the great 19th century naturalist Louis Agassiz, and a student of his. The student has come to Agassiz’s lab to learn what the great man has to teach. Agassiz comes and greets the newbie, takes a fish out of a jar of alcohol, places it in a tin tray and tells the student to look at the fish and tell him what he sees. Agasissz leaves, and the student looks. Time passes, the student looks more and more until he’s certain he’s seen everything. Agassiz comes back much later and asks him what he’s seen. The student dutifully rattles off what he’s observed, which fails to impress the scientist. “Look at your fish!” he says and leaves.

The more the student looks, the more he finds; new details, new characteristics that change his understanding of the fish. In the version of the story I know, ( Scudder, Samuel H. [April 4, 1874]. “Look at Your Fish”. Every Saturday 16: 369–370) the student is Samuel H. Scudder, later a famous entomologist and paleontologist in his own right, and Scudder’s encounter with the fish lasts three whole days before Agassiz is satisfied that he’s “seen” the fish. There’s a beautifully sombre painting of Scudder in the Museum of Science’s collection, almost entirely black, with Scudder, dressed in black. Up in the corner, the artist has painted a butterfly, Scudder’s first love as a naturalist, and the only blotch of color in an otherwise monochrome work. And what is Scudder doing? Looking down at whatever he’s studying. According to Scudder, learning to look was the biggest gift Agassiz gave him.

And to bring this back to looking at art, the story comes around full-circle as the anecdote with which Ezra Pound opens the ABC of Reading, his 1934 work of literary criticism. Pound’s trying to get readers to slow down and really look at the words on the page.

If there’s one thing all the parties seem to agree on, it’s this.

Pay attention!

Look again!

What do you see?

Look some more!