Monday, May 04, 2009

AAM Conference

Last weekend I went to the American Association of Museums conference in Philadelphia. Here are some notes from a few sessions I attended.

“Learning a New Language: The Delights and Dilemmas of Building Diverse Art Museum Audiences.”

The three main issues the panelist wanted to address were:

1. Are you programs relevant to non-traditional, esl visitors?
2. Are your programs responding to that community?
3. Are your programs for those visitors authentic?

They emphasized that every museum is serving a diverse audience, and that soon these issues will be even more important in the next thirty years when a third of children will be born to immigrant parents. They suggested that public programming should be accessible to all members of the community, including those who speak English as a second language and those who do not speak English at all, and that public programming should empower the non-traditional visitor and promote civic engagement in a more immediate way.

We broke up into small groups and discussed how to make public program authentic. We talked about a lot of different issues that had to do with stereotypes, authority, and relationships.

* Whose voice is presenting information? Is it the authority of the museum or the voice of the contributing community? Is it both?
* Does age create a stereotype of authenticity? ie, do people believe an object/idea is real or true only because it is from the past? (I thought this was particularly interesting because it seemed almost like a contradicting stereotype)
* We need to reach people on an individual/personal level because that is authentic to every person. We can’t be formulaic or broad or generalizing. If we want to be relevant to people’s lives and create a real, meaningful experience, we need to be able to make contact on a very personal level.
* We need to build and maintain relationships with those communities we’re serving, especially those that are marginalized or voiceless. We are not serving our community if we are only serving one or two culture groups.
* There needs to be complete institutional buy-in for these authentic programs to work and sustain themselves. If your staff doesn’t think it’s important (necessary) it’s not going to go far.

The panel also emphasised that language is integral to identity, and that culture and learning are influenced by languge. Therefore, if we’re not speaking the language of our visitors, we’re not reaching them on an intellectual or personal level. Language is a very big issue, and one that a lot of people feel strongly about. But the US does not have an official language, and the projected statistics for the next 30 years are staggering. If we do nothing about this we will be failing more than a third of the population of our country, if not more.

“Core exhibitions in Culturally-Specific Museum: Which Stories to Tell?”

This session focused on the competing lenses through which to present the history of America. Panelists represented Jewish, African American, and American Indian groups, with one curator from the National Museum of American History.

Some ideas about culture:

* it is not fixed or static; changing with time
* sometime it is buried or hidden and must be discovered to be heard
* it is not agreed upon and is different for every individual

The panelists questioned what stories we “like” to tell, and how deep we usually go with our histories. They also suggested that we might not be satisfied with our stories and that our audiences might be looking for something more, too.

The presenter from the NMAH wondered if by “American history” we mean the intersection of cultural histories, not simply the history of white men. He also addressed the original purpose of national museums as being an enforcer of national identity and how that idea inherently divides our cutlure from that of the “other.” But what really defines “other” in a community of immigrants? How are we united if not through culture/history/language?

Along with this concept of national identity, the american indian representative brought up two interesting points that I had never considered:

1. Not all american indians identify themselves as “American.” They see themselves as members of their tribe nation, not the United States.
2. Tribal museums function as national museums for tribes because they are the repository for history, objects and programs to educate members of the community and outsiders.

Good history is messy- that is why museums exist, to help explain, educate, question, heal and create a place for dialogue.

We are always making a choice when we create an exhibit- we make a choice with our words, the objects we show, which story to tell, which voices to use.

They ended the panel with the question: what is the ultimate goal of a culturally specific musem? - are these stories overlapping? - what groups don’t have a museum? - how far can they go? - does it ever become one story?

“Globally, Locally, Personally: Museums as Crucibles for Social Transformation.”

Book reference: “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” by Paolo Friere

Positive social change should:

* Awaken social conciousness
* provide opportunities for self-affirmation

Social interaction is increasing globally with internet and economy. Peridoxically, humans are joining social groups less but global life necessitates cooperation.

Book reference: “The Art of Cultural Development.” byt Arlene Goldbard

The museum becomes a crucible when exhbitons/progams/policy promote social change. We want museum staff and visitors to be agents for social change.

Use historic objects (Skirball and Harvard) and places (sites of conscience) to encourage dialogue about current relevant issues.

How can we create active citizens who engage in social issues? Use open-ended questions to promote dialogue.

Helps to have a network of different institutions to deal with specific issues; helps create content/answers to real and current problems.

Museums must create a platform for visitors to respond and share stories- don’t forget that visitors learn from museum and each other, museum learns from visitors.

Sites of conscious use the power of place to tell a story, questions actions and motivations, deal with current topics.

Skirball Museum (LA) had exhibition of photos about immigration and teens, then let teens in community take photos and tell personal stories. Teens talked with each other, and on npr about experiences- validation of identity and empowering.

Harvard Art Museum has hospice nurses, doctors, med students come to museum to grieve for patients, heal, build community through art.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


I'm working with a group of very talented individuals and an insightful choreographer to create a version of The Rite of Spring. This isn't Nijinsky's or Bausch's, but it's exciting and collaborative. Here are some videos we're drawing ideas from. Hopefully I'll have a video version to show after the performance.

Liu Yan, an amazing Classical Chinese dancer

Apache dancing

Of course, Nijinsky

Pina Bausch

There is a really raw power and emotion to all of these dances. Their faces convey dramatic expression, while their bodies perform with such energy that the audience can believe they might dance until they die.
We're working with a vocabulary of movement that includes spirals, jumping, angular limbs, and quick nerve reflex-like jolts.

I just wanted to share something unrelated to museums.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Grad School Dayz

It's my second quarter of the Museology program at UW. I'm enjoying myself, but all of my work seems so much easier than undergrad. I turn in short response papers, have almost no tests, and most of the information I'm learning is basic common sense. I'm not complaining about this light workload, it just makes me question the amount of information I am acquiring.
My main class right now is "Care and Management of Collections," a requirement for the program. We learn how to clean and protect objects, the laws associated with accessioning objects into the collection, and the bone structure of the museum. I understand that museum staff would be lost without learning these important facts, i.e. relative temperature should be low and constant, museums cannot not just throw away an object when they don't want it anymore, etc, but it's not exactly riveting. I also have a lab class where I get to handle art objects and create files for them. This is fun, especially compared to my last quarter when the closest I got to an object was some theoretical idea in a term paper.
But I feel like this common sense work and these legal issues are just as much at the heart of museum practice as theories debating whether the museum is a high-minded place for scholars, or an informal learning site for the public. One main stipulation of an anthropology collection that I find integral to museology is to never assign a monetary value to any object in the collection. An appraisal of anthropological objects is dangerous for two reasons: one, it can fuel an undesirable market for those objects, which encourages the looting of sites by people looking to make a profit from cultural history and two, because that cultural history is truly priceless. No matter how much insurance we assign to a collection of artifacts, if they are damaged or destroyed, they cannot be replaced. And it destroys part of the past, part of a memory, part of a culture. Museum objects hold the stories that can no longer be told by humans.

My part-time job selling baby clothes has cut my hours drastically, due to the off-season and the ailing economy. This leaves me with a lot of time on my hands. And what do I do with my time? Nothing productive until now. I have decided that I need to make a public declaration, even if my father is the only person who will read it, to be more productive and efficient with my time. I have started knitting a poncho for a little cousin, reading for pleasure, and maybe watching some embarrassing family reality tv.
I'm not sure why, but I've started watching "Jon and Kate + 8," a show on TLC that follows the lives of parents, Jon and Kate, who have one set of twins and a set of sextuplets. As much as I usually hate reality shows, this one gives me a deep satisfaction unlike any sitcom. This family is going through the normal transitions from infancy to childhood, albeit the drama is multiplied, and it comforts the viewer to see these common lessons learned. But, as Kate often reminds us, the show is also a documentation of the lives of these children. Without the camera men and editors, many of those happy, angry, sad, moments would be lost in the quotidian hustle and bustle. This kind of documentation is unlike anything in museums; it is an immersive experience to watch the lives of these parents. And these is the kind of documentation that will fill museum shelves of the future. Every object that we produce today has cultural significance, from the most mundane spoon to a television show that represents the "American family." This is how we will be remembered.

I am realizing that maybe the reason I want to work in a museum is not only to be able to look at beautiful things all day, not only to teach people about art and history, but also because I am scared of forgetting the fleeting past. I'm scared of the loose ends unraveling, leaving me without a woven pattern. Only pieces.

Friday, September 19, 2008

X country

Four days in the car can give perspective on a country.

Jon, Tony and I drove from Dearborn, Michigan to Seattle, Washington, in Jon’s car with a Uhaul trailer and a bike rack. I was allowed only to bring as many of my material possessions (for the next two years) as would fit in the trailer, thereby forcing me to choose what I truly needed, what I could live without, and what I would have to buy once we reached our destination. It was an efficient way to sort out my life at such a crucial moment: when I would finally live on my own, away from the comfort of my parents’ home.

My car mates and I scaled mountains, breezed through plains, admired crops and forests, and actually passed three or four other vehicles on the way. We were constantly surprised by the seemingly immediate transitions from one landscape to the next; particularly in Washington, where the east side was a barren world of yellow-brown field teeming with wispy dust devils, and the west was a breath-taking combination of craggy mountains and lush vegetation.

We stopped briefly at Wall Drug, a true badlands icon. What started as a modest, small-town drug store has mutated into a block-long tourist trap with every tchotchke imaginable; from postcards to cowboy boots to fools gold. They have it all.

Our pilgrimage to Mt. Rushmore was completely fulfilling; a bright, sunny morning, clean, crisp mountain air, and the four most beloved American presidents was the perfect way to start the third day of our travels.

Not only that, there was the human element; ten to twelve hours in the car with people, even if you love them, can get old. But there was really only one moment when my comrades and I butted heads, and those 200 miles were quickly forgotten with a greasy meal of eggs, hashbrowns and toast. We listened to radiolab episodes about mortality and sang along to Usher and R. Kelley. We played in the pool and rode the water slide at our hotel near Mt. Rushmore. We also had really good snacks; teddy grahams, twizzlers, cookies and pretzels.

It was a successful drive, on all accounts. I sleepily contemplated the countryside and reservations, and I shifted the car into second gear to drag the trailer up a mountain. I was a real pioneer; heading for the west with a wagon, my man and dreams of a new life. A new destiny.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Civil Duty

When I received my jury summons in early September I quickly called to excuse myself because I would be in school at my scheduled date. The woman on the phone politely asked when I would be done with school for the holidays so that she could reschedule me. Being all too nice and a terrible liar I gave last week's Monday, the 10th of December, as my date with boredom and doom.
Not only did I not want to drive downtown at 7 am, find parking and sit uncomfortably surrounded by strangers for a few hours, I was not in the least interested in deciding the fate of another human being. I felt completely unqualified for such an important position. How could I choose what was right and wrong in a situation I didn't witness? How could I possibly understand everything said in the court room and, with an unbiased mind, give my opinion?
I think that is what I was most worried about. In most situations I am able to ask others what they think before making a decision. I value the opinions of my friends and my family, and many times I concur with their feelings. However I feel that I am sometimes swayed in my personal opinion in order to make everyone happy. I might go along with the crowd even if I don't fully agree. I was worried that I wouldn't know how to defend myself in the deliberation room. My stomach was twisting imagining what I would have to say or do for people to listen to me, especially because of my age (I was certainly the youngest juror, followed by a man in his mid to late twenties).
When my group was finally called, we lined up at the door in two single file lines, grade school style, and went up the elevators to the court room. My name was called in the first group to sit in the jury box, and when I saw the defendant and heard the accusations against him, I knew I would remain juror number 9 for the entire trial. My heart sank into my stomach. He was charged with first degree felony murder, larceny, and a few other smaller charges.
A young, thin black man was sitting opposite the defense attorney. He was dressed in jeans, a royal blue shirt and tie with his head lowered and his hands clasped in front of him. Occasionally he looked up at us in what could have been hope. I don't know much about the defendant because he never spoke, nor did any of his relatives or friends. He was a blank slate that we had to judge. We had no idea who he was, where he was from, where he went to school. The only information we were given was that in July, at the age of 14, he stole a car, drove it for nearly a minute, then crashed and spun out of control, hitting a pedestrian and killing her.
Without going into the incredibly boring details of 5 police witnesses and the angsty testimony of a Wayne State University student witness, it was obvious that first degree murder was not applicable. This was an accident, and although he stole the car and didn't know how to drive, he was not expecting to kill anyone that day.
The time had come for decision making. But once in the jury room I wasn't scared at all about voicing my opinion. I felt empowered to explain my feelings and reasons to 11 other people, who by this time were a little less than strangers. I helped lead discussion and votes, and in the end I believe that our decision of involuntary manslaughter was right.
I had rarely heard about people's experiences on a jury; I only knew that I didn't want to be on one. But I think that if more people were willing to take a day or two out of their lives they would find an incredible experience there. It's not a glamorous opportunity by any means, but the impact on your life is tremendous. It could even be life changing. I don't think I will ever forget the trial, or the deliberation. For me the independence of mind that I had to uphold was a reminder of things I learned on study abroad and throughout my life; responsibility to others, freedom and trust.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Iced Tea

Alex and Mary are to thank for this post. I know I haven't written in a while, so it's about time.

I've been working at the tea shop and interning at the DIA for the last couple months and it really is great, although I am feeling a little burnt out. This could be ameliorated by the fact that the shop is cutting it's hours so I wont be working as much, but really it's just frustrating because I need the money and for some reason it's close to impossible to pay Birmingham rent with tea leaves. I really want Spot O Tea to succeed; I feel invested and actually somewhat passionate about that place. I want Sharon to win against the multitude of odds she's up against, and I want to keep my job. It's difficult to believe that my coworkers feel the same sometimes; often I think I am the only person taking orders and cleaning up.

My internship is much more involved and complicated than last summer, which is exciting. I'm creating high-tech interpretive stations for the American and the Contemporary galleries, basically on my own. I've done nearly all the research, put together ideas in documents that are being mocked up by a company in New York with close to no help from my boss or the other educators. I've been given a huge responsibility to create educational experiences and opportunities for the permanent collection of one of the best museums in the country, a secret that will hopefully be let out of the bag with the reinstallation. I will be able to show people things that I made in a museum. I'm excited.
This internship has made me realize that this is what I want to do; I want to create more accessible museums for people to come and feel inspired and to learn about art. The museum is no longer, and should never have been, focused on the wealthy patron or the philanthropist; they are for the public and should engage all people in a dialog about art and it's meaning. It's pretty painful to say but most museum are still very prejudice, formal and cold so it's no wonder that the citizens of the community who are not involved with art on an everyday basis feel bored or intimidated by them. I now have a goal.

I just finished Cloud Atlas. I have to admit that I didn't really like it until the end. The middle section was so difficult to read that I almost gave up, but it brought together a lot of current ideas of freedom, human rights and democracy that I wasn't really expecting.

In other news, I have a new dog. Her name is Ruby.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Explaining the Inexplicable

This was my speech for Friday Chapel about Study Abroad.

Inexplicably, over the course of five months I had become three different people.
It’s expected that study abroad will change you in ways that you would never imagine. We see things in a different way, from another angle, with a different lens. I gained many lenses abroad. When I came home I had bifocals.
When I left for Strasbourg, France, I left my family, my friends, and many of the aspects of me I thought were inexplicably connected. I was a specific person who liked chocolate, who was funny (sometimes) and who needed to be social and around people in order to feel safe and comfortable. I was bad at making decisions. I thought that Europe wasn’t doing too much with their economy. I thought that leaving meat out on the counter all day was a bad choice. All of these ideas were about to change.
When I arrived in France I knew very few of my Kalamazoo College colleagues and absolutely no one in Strasbourg. I was surrounded by people who were meeting me for the first time or who were getting to know me on a more personal level. I could make completely fresh first impressions. All of a sudden I was faced with a choice; should I remain the same person I have always been, or should I try something new? Could I fix things I didn’t like about myself? Create a new identity?
I decided to change some things, but not everything. I still went to dance classes I still listened to the same music and I still spoke with friends and family from home. But to my new friends in Strasbourg I became the girl who never refused chocolate, who was always joking and being funny and who could be alone for an entire day and walk around the city quietly with her own thoughts. I was learning how to make serious decisions for myself based on how I truly felt and what I sincerely wanted. Suddenly I was not only foreign to people around me but I was becoming foreign to myself.
I had to learn about this new Erin. What did she like to do for fun? She used to sit and talk with friends, go out to eat and dance. The new Erin liked to read more, to travel and to cook and bake for her host family. She knew what it was like to see a concentration camp instead of just learning about one. She had learned how to communicate with people with no language at all (simply nodding and gesticulating can get you pretty far). In learning about her I obviously learned about who I really was and what I was capable of.
I liked her. But sometimes I missed my old self. I missed my old ways of doing things that was either impossible or too difficult in Strasbourg. I became comfortable in the new me, but I was excited to return home to the way things used to be.
But I realized while hugging my mother upon my return home that the Strasbourg Erin couldn’t be the Post-Sudy-Abroad Erin. She wouldn’t work at home. But if my new friends know me as my Strasbourg identity and I was finally happy with who I had become, how could I go back home and to school and be both? Would I have to choose between the person who was cultivated from birth and the person who sprung up in Strasbourg? How could I choose?
I decided to create yet another Erin; one who embodied both the older and newer models, who had insight enough to see each for her faults and successes. I realized that stepping outside of both my original ideas before study abroad and my new found knowledge from Europe, that I could be complete. I could make decisions based on multifaceted thinking. I could understand both sides of the story. I don’t know how many more Erin’s are in my future, but while it seems impossible to explain my transformations I value each of them infinitely.