Museum Studies at Tufts University

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The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art: Indigenizing Museum Spaces

The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art

Like many museum lovers, a visit to an unfamiliar city is a chance to discover new museums. Being in the museum field, those visits are an invaluable chance to find inspiration, see museum trends in action, and gain new ideas for future practice. Never have a found this to be more true than with a recent visit to Indianapolis and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. This one-of-a-kind museum exemplifies what it is to be a modern museum focusing on interactive displays, shared authority, and visitor experience. But more importantly, the Eiteljorg is a decolonizing museum, representing indigenous people and cultures not as relics of the past, but as contemporary and still here.

The Eiteljorg Museum was founded by Indianapolis businessman and philanthropist Harrison Eiteljorg in 1989. Originally conceived as an art museum, the institution made an early commitment to a shared authority with indigenous people. As founding curator Mike Leslie wrote, “The museum’s overall programming emphasizes not only the historical importance of Native American art and artifacts, but also their importance in a modern context. We must not forget that Native American cultures are still flourishing artistically.”

By 1991 the museum had formed the American Indian Advisory Board, this board would work directly with the museum’s administrators, curators, and collections staff to provide guidance, assistance and direction in all matters associated with the art, history, and culture of native peoples of North America. One of the main takeaways from the advisory board was the need for the museum to create a distinction between ownership and stewardship in relation to sacred and sensitive objects.

In 2002 the museum continued to to indigenize museum spaces with the opening of a new permanent gallery, Mihtoseenioki: The People’s Place, created in collaboration the advisory board and representatives from local tribes. The exhibit was opened to interpret the Miami, Potawatomi, Delaware, and other tribes who were and still are an important part of the state’s history and culture.

Mihtohseenionki (The People’s Place)

It was in this exhibition I felt the most inspired, intrigued, and moved. Mihtoseenioki tells the stories, both past and present, of the original Miami people as well as that of other tribal groups that moved into the current state of Indiana as the result of European conquest and expansion. The written panels were written by members of native communities and curated by Ray Gonyea an Onondaga Iroquois. While many museums have been accused of presenting indigenous people and cultures as historical and ethnographic this exhibition leaves visitors with the knowledge that indigenous people are still here and that tribal cultures are still being practiced. This same theme was carried through the rest of the Eiteljorg’s art galleries. The gallery space was organized not chronologically but geographically with historical and contemporary art side by side.

While I was most affected by the Eiteljorg’s decolonizing efforts, the museum further impressed me with their commitment to improving the visitor experience. This was made clear through the incorporation of different evaluation tools throughout the exhibition, encouragement of visitor feedback, multiple hands-on, participatory, and interactive exhibit elements for visitors of all ages.

As museum practitioners, I encourage us all to keep and eye on the Eiteljorg Museum and any future innovations they may take.

 

What Does it Take to Restore a 19th Century Eakins Portrait?

Thomas Eakins was an American painter, photographer, and sculptor most known for his portraiture and genre works. Born in Philadelphia in 1844, Eakins has been called the “father of modern realism in American Art.” His work has been exhibited internationally, in institutions such as the Louvre, Met, LACMA, and the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Japan. Although Eakins’ works have been widely displayed and researched, his Portrait of Ella Crowell, completed in 1882, has never before been exhibited. The Fitchburg Art Museum recently sent this painting to be restored, and intends to one day bring this painting, and its dark story, to light.

The Portrait of Ella Crowell is in fact a double-sided oil painting of Eakins’ oldest niece, Ella Crowell, who studied with him before her death. The front side, or recto, depicts Ella in profile, who looks down towards the bottom left hand corner of the canvas. Eakins has carefully highlighted her face and neck, while her dark hair and burgundy dress blend in with the background. The canvas’s verso showcases Ella seated on a wooden chair, her entire body in profile. Her shadowy representation almost foreshadows the tragic events that unfolded a few years after the completion of her portrait: in 1897, Ella committed suicide, after making accusations of her uncle’s sexual misconduct (see Museums in the Age of #MeToo).

While the painting is an outstanding example of Eakins’ technique and style, it was covered with dust and debris, and in dire need of restoration. The Fitchburg Art Museum sent the Portrait of Ella Crowell to the Worcester Art Museum’s conservation lab to be retouched and shined. There, conservators delicately toned and re-saturated both sides of the canvas, significantly brightening its now-lustrous appearance.

Upon the painting’s initial inspection, conservators found a small tear along its side. Removing a single thread from the canvas’s edge, conservators were able to sew the tear, ensuring the patchwork matched the original canvas. Several drops of white paint were also scattered across the seated portrait of Ella. Using a process known as “X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy” to analyze the elements found in the paint drops, it was revealed that the white dots did not contain titanium, meaning they were original to the painting. Conservators carefully removed the distracting white dots by using a special solution of water and heat. Finally, several layers of varnish were removed, producing an overall more illuminating effect.

Today, the multidimensional Portrait of Ella Crowell now shines, and is ready to be exhibited for the first time. However, it is also a painting that tells the hushed story of Eakins’ controversial behavior, a story that is now more important than ever to tell in the age of the #MeToo movement. The Fitchburg Art Museums intends to one day share this painting, and Ella’s story, with visitors.

Museums in the Age of #MeToo

From Medieval Europe to modern day Hollywood, women have long suffered sexualized power imbalances for the sake of “art.” With the recent changing climate, due to the #MeToo movement, museum educators increasingly face the need to address problematic artists and their subjects hanging in our museums. Yet, how can we acknowledge and encourage conversation around controversial artwork without censoring or erasing historically and culturally significant work?

These conflicting viewpoint have come to a head around the painting “Thérèse Dreaming” by 20th century French artist Balthus. The sexualized nature of the painting depicting Balthus’ twelve year old neighbor Thérèse Blanchard drove New York entrepreneur Mia Merril to launch a petition calling for the removal of the painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s walls. The petition, which amassed over 11,000 signatures, was later updated to include a compromise of asking the institution to include a label acknowledging the problematic nature of the artist and painting.  The Met has refused to remove the painting nor update the label copy stating that “art is meant to reflect many time periods, not just the current one.” The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) have released their own statement supporting the Met’s choice and alluding to other recent controversies in the art world. 

“Recent cases of censorship, including the threats of violence that forced the Guggenheim Museum in New York to remove several exhibits, reveal a disturbing trend of attempts to stifle art that engages difficult subjects .Art can often offer insights into difficult realities and, as such, merits vigorous defense. NCAC applauds The Met’s refusal to bow to its critics. We will continue to support cultural institutions that allow members of the public to make up their own minds about what is ‘offensive.'” –NCAC Press Release

The Met and NCAC responses hinge at the root of this conflict. In recent years the art world has been rocked by controversies such as Terry RichardsonNicolas Nixon, and other reports of the rampant sexual harassment. As a result many institutions are no longer supporting contemporary artists with problematic histories. Yet, many of the artists we applaud, such as Picasso, Balthus, and Diego Rivera, If alive today, would be considered highly problematic in our current climate. Artwork has long placed women at an imbalance of power, an object of beauty meant to serve its male creator. Through the display of this glorified power imbalance, are museum supporting upholding the sexualization and exploitation of women? If so, what is our role is dispelling this toxic culture? As museum educators, how can we teach important works of art without erasing the damages done to women through the adoration of this artwork?

In the face of these issues, many museum educators are advocating for changing “context, not content.” While art has historically been contextualized within its own time period, cultural, social, and political contexts, it is increasingly important to analyze the works meaning within our current cultural climate. Instead of ignoring the controversial aspects of a piece of art we must embrace that controversy and expand upon what story the artwork can tell. Through this we can spark dialogue and incite difficult conversations that need to be had within the art world.

Weekly Jobs Roundup!

Here’s your weekly roundup of new jobs! Happy Hunting!

New England

Graduate Gallery Assistant/Intern  [Tufts University Gallery, Medford, MA]

Director of Museum Education [Newport Art Museum, Newport, RI]

School and Teacher Programs Manager [Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT]

Youth and Community Programs Manager [Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT]

Director of Education and Experience [Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA]

Museum Educator, Part-time [EcoTarium, Worcester, MA]

Director of Membership and Corporate Partnership [Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, CT]

Executive Director [American Precision Museum, Windsor, VT]

Mid Atlantic

Education Manager [Historic Hudson Valley, Sleepy Hollow, New York]

Curator of Rare Books [Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC]

Midwest

Education and Volunteer Coordinator [Museums of Western Colorado, Grand Junction, CO]

South

Curator of Decorative Arts and Design [High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA]

Museum Educator for Adult Programs [Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA]

West

Educational Programs Manager [Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, Waco, TX]

Assistant Curator for Exhibition Projects [Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA]

Director of Marketing and Audience Engagement [Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA]

Learning Director [The Leonardo Museum, Salt Lake City, UT]

 

Job Announcements

Graduate Gallery Assistant for Tufts University Students

Tufts University Art Galleries is seeking a graduate student interested in museum pedagogy, audience development, and public programs to work closely with the Gallery Educator & Academic Programs Coordinator for the 18-19 academic year.

The Graduate Assistant will conduct research on future exhibitions, organize and create resource materials for faculty and students, design and implement campus-wide public programs in conjunction with exhibitions, and provide informal learning opportunities in the Gallery. The Gallery Educator will train and mentor the Graduate Assistant to facilitate discussion-based tours in current exhibitions using a variety of museum pedagogies (i.e., VTS, Artful Thinking). This fall, the Gallery will feature Expressions Unbound: American Outsider Art from the Andrew and Linda Safran Collection, which brings together 38 artworks by some of the foremost self-taught artists of the 20th century and States of Freedom: The Figure in Flux, a pan-historical group exhibition of contemporary and historical work in which the body appears fragmented, flattened, or collaged.

The schedule for this paid position is flexible, but the expectation is a commitment of 5-10 hours per week. This position can be used to fulfill the Museum Studies internship requirement. Applicants should send a letter of interest and CV/Resume to Liz Canter at Elizabeth.canter@tufts.edu.

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