Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Category: Reviews (page 1 of 4)

NEMA Conference 2016 Review: Where Do We Go from Here?

In the wake of this year’s presidential election, the 2016 New England Museum Association Conference was “the best cure for a political hangover,” as NEMA Executive Director Dan Yaeger put it. This year’s theme, “Plug In: Museums and Social Action,” seemed even more pertinent than we had perhaps realized, as Wednesday morning saw many conference-goers overwhelmed with emotion about our country’s political state. I could have cut through the thick tension in the air with the butter knife on my table at lunch that day. Yet poignant keynote performances by Bated Breath Theatre Company and Annawon Weeden that focused on social justice and knowing our country’s full history seemed to inspire us to come together both as a profession and as a community. Instead of fixating on our political differences, we were challenged to channel that intensity and put our thinking caps on to have constructive conversations over the next three days. Sessions like “Encouraging Civic Engagement,” “Engaging Visitors in Conversation Forums About Societal Issues,” and “Museums at the Intersections: Strategies for Community and Justice Issues” were just a few of the many that asked the critical question of what our social responsibility is to our communities and how we as museums can do more for them than just provide a fun day out on a Saturday. While the conference started out on a shaky and uncertain note, that note soon blossomed into a chorus of voices talking and communicating about potential answers to these questions and how they could play out in our museums. Now, it’s time to put these ideas into motion. Our country is at a crossroads and more than ever our museums need to ask themselves those same critical questions and determine whether or not they will act on these conversations or stay silent.

If you attended all or part of this year’s NEMA Conference and would like to contribute a post about any part of it (a specific session, a conversation you had, the conference as a whole, etc.), please use the “Contact Us” box at the bottom of this page or send us an email at tufts.museums.blog@gmail.com.

Exhibition Review: “Overgrowth” at the deCordova

Today’s exhibition review comes to you from Kathryn Sodaitis, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Studies certificate program. Check out more of Kathryn’s posts here

I recently went to see Overgrowth at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts.  Overgrowth is a collection of drawings, paintings, photography and sculpture from the permanent collection in the galleries that are on display through September 18, 2016. The show asks us to consider our human relationship to nature, to explore “how artists represent prolific growth, expansion, and transformation in the natural world and built environment.”

I visited this exhibition because I wanted to investigate how deCordova represents their permanent collection of contemporary artists.  Seeing work from a permanent collection can be overwhelming in that a wide range of objects from the collection may not be as cohesive as a show by a single artist.  At deCordova, the objects from the collection are grouped together by a unifying theme and are removed after a few months.  Much like a temporary special exhibition, this show received curation, interpretation, marketing and programming.  This type of exhibition allows the public to see more of the objects from the collection through periodic rotations, keeping the galleries more up-to-date and current.  This model likely aims to increase museum visitation and boost membership because visitors can see different work more frequently.  But does such an exhibit have the wow power of a show with a singular vision–one that is most relevant to the issues of our time?  My recent experience at Overgrowth helped me evaluate whether this approach engages visitors and creates personally meaningful experiences.

Overgrowth utilizes some effective strategies to create a comfortable, logical, and meaningful exhibition.  While the exhibit succeeds in some areas, I also felt that it could promote more meaningful engagement from its visitors.  Here are some of the highlights of my visit:

  • The aesthetic strengths of this show drew me in immediately. White walls and the modern, vine-like font create the backdrop for an exhibition on contemporary art.  The artwork provides the eye-candy and is arranged to draw attention to the colors, textures, and sensory appeal of the works themselves.  The three bulbous blue ceramic sculptures by Makoto Yabe enticed me to enter the exhibition.  These amorphous, celeste blue forms introduce the philosophy of “Wabi sabi”, explained in the label as “a Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty in imperfection.”  This sub-theme reappears in many of the works throughout the galleries, in which beauty is paired with mutation, destruction and decay.
  • On the third floor, the brilliant green of the cast aluminum sculpture Glo Baby Glo by Gary Webb greets you first, set against the more distant backdrop of several paintings and photographs featuring the same springtime color. The use of color here is an effective way to invite the visitor into the space.  Plenty of breathing room around this sculpture, and the rest of the work in the gallery, does not overwhelm the visitor.
  • In the third floor exhibition space, human impact on nature is directly addressed, and as one would predict, the relationship is largely negative. Photographs of styrofoam take-out containers, powerlines, aerial shots of cars and sprawl, and the before and after image of a demolition of a condemned building are some of the imagery documented by artists, which depict some of the drawbacks associated with progress. However, the most meaningful moment for me came in the section titled, “Organic Abundance.”  Late Summer, a photograph by Boston-based photographer Laura McPhee offers a different vantage–the idea that nature is not as fragile as we might think.  The image of the White Cloud Mountains of Idaho after a wildfire tells a story of growth and renewal, hope and possibility.  It’s a message that resonated with me the most–in times when destruction and despair are prevalent, look for a message of strength and renewal.
  • The theme of this show asks us to consider our human relationship to nature, a theme which strongly corresponds to the outdoor Sculpture Park. Outdoor space offers opportunities for institutions to relinquish some control over interpretation and behavior, which can be fairly limited inside a museum’s walls.  Outside, the rules of behavior are different, and parents of small children especially welcome opportunities to take breaks outdoors and allow little feet to run, fingers to touch, and voices to rise after a more controlled indoor experience.  In fact, after visiting the exhibition, I couldn’t resist going outside to consider my own relationship to the natural world while walking along the grounds.  The deCordova is right to highlight this strength through an exhibition that encourages us to visit its outdoor space.

The deCordova has the ability to offer unique experiences both inside and outside, and can provide a model for how an institution might not only coexist with its environment, but also provide a range of opportunities for participation from its community.   It seems to me that the deCordova could continue to explore options of sharing some of its institutional control over the content of its exhibitions and invite more participatory experiences from its community inside the galleries.  Overall, this “permanent collection-temporary exhibition” is successful in that the big idea correlates with the Sculpture Park, and it enticed me to go outside and explore.  However, the deCordova should consider ways to engage more visitors in dialogue with each other within the conventional exhibition format.

Read the full review on Exhibit Files.

 

The Art of Schmoozing Workshop Review

Last week, a number of current and former Museum Studies students took part in a workshop put on by the Museum Studies Department and led by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, President and CEO of the Abbe Museum. “The Art of Schmoozing” discussed networking beyond trying to get a job or making a conference more bearable. Networking helps you talk to potential (and current) donors, volunteers, and community members. Knowing how to speak intelligently and politely is important both professionally and personally (picture sitting at a dinner party and not knowing how to talk to the people around you).

Museum Studies Alum Jennifer Clifford practicing her networking with Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko. (Photo Courtesy of Cynthia Robinson)

Museum Studies Alum Jennifer Clifford (middle) practicing her networking with Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko (right). (Photo Courtesy of Cynthia Robinson)

While many of us panic at the sight of a crowded conference happy hour, and the prospect of talking to billionaires (should we be so lucky) can evoke anxiety, there are several small tricks that can help ease the nerves. Cinnamon imparted some of her own first-hand experiences with some of the following tips:

  • Always introduce someone new to the whole group. It seems straightforward, but often someone joins a group conversation in the middle of a conversation. Rarely do people stop in the middle to say, “Oh by the way, this is my friend Colleen…” before continuing on. It’s awkward to halt the conversation, but it’s also awkward to be chatting with an unknown, unnamed stranger.
  • To get out of a conversation, either make something up (“Oh you’ll have to excuse me, I need to check on the caterer”) or be straightforward but put the onus on you (“I’m sure there are lots of people you’d like to talk to tonight. I’m sorry for monopolizing your time. It was great to meet you. Thank you!”)
  • To break into a group conversation, you can watch body language and wait for an opening (as long as you’re not lurking!), or you can interrupt very briefly and say, “I’m so sorry for interrupting, I just wanted to introduce myself and tell you that I loved your talk at NEMA. Would it be alright if I follow up with you later? I have some questions I’d like to ask you.” With any luck, you’ll get that person’s card and you can email them later.

Cinnamon’s presentation was frank and funny, and included tips on knowing how to work with people with different personality types (check out DiSC if you’re interested). Afterwards, participants were able to practice their new skills over wine and snacks.

Keep your eye out here and in the Museum Studies newsletter for further fun workshops!

Tour Review: The Art of Europe Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts

Today we bring you an article by Christina Errico, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Education Master’s program. Here, Christina analyzes a tour at the MFA for the Tufts course Teaching and Learning in the Museum.

In November, I took a docent-led tour of the Art of Europe wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The tour was aimed at providing the participants with a broad range of examples of European art, from medieval to early 20th century. While the experience was not wholly unsuccessful, there were two major issues with the tour. There was a clear lack of engagement between the tour guide and the visitors and, because of that, the tour did not necessarily live up to the MFA’s “ultimate aim” of their mission statement: to “encourage inquiry and to heighten public understanding and appreciation of the visual world.”

The first thing I noticed about my tour was that, because we were never asked about ourselves, we were (presumably unintentionally) being told that although we were not important, what was important was our guide asserting her authority by telling us how long she had worked there and how much she knew about the art. By the way our guide described the works of art and the fact that she never welcomed questions, the tour felt as if it was made for people who already knew about European art or at least had a very strong interest in it. This may have felt exclusionary for some people, and in fact one visitor dropped off the tour a few stops in. Our tour guide also walked quickly between works of art that sometimes spanned long and confusing stretches of the museum without once looking back to make sure that her tour was keeping up with her or even that we were all with her when she began speaking about the next piece. Because our guide did not take into consideration all the different aspects of our experiences and because we as learners were not finding new ideas or constructing knowledge on our own, I would argue that making any meaning at all out of this experience would have been very difficult. And while the MFA’s mission statement states that “the Museum’s ultimate aim is to encourage inquiry and to heighten public understanding and appreciation of the visual world,” I believe that because she never checked in with us to see how her efforts were paying off, it would be hard to tell whether she was successful.

While reflecting on my tour experience at the MFA, I thought of the Visitor’s Bill of Rights written by Judy Rand, director of Rand and Associates. There appeared to me to be a few rights that could have been addressed more clearly to yield an improved experience. The first was the right to feel welcomed. Our tour guide could have made us feel more welcome asking us at the very least who we were, but more importantly by engaging in dialogue with us along the way and also making sure that we were keeping up with her physically and intellectually as well. The second right was the right to communication. Communication is a key part of learning and meaning making in museums, so our guide could have made us more comfortable by making sure that we understood what she was saying and why it was relevant, as well as welcoming questions from the start of the tour. The third right the right to choice and control. A certain amount of control could have been ceded to us by our tour guide engaging us with more open-ended questions to facilitate an organic discussion between us.

Although I do not think I learned as much as I could have through the didactic model of teaching, it does work for some learners and I did not walk away having learned nothing from the Art of Europe tour at the MFA. If I was to summarize all of my thoughts, I would do so by quoting Rika Burnham, who at one time was in a very similar situation as our tour guide while conducting one of her run-of-the-mill tours at the Met. Burnham realized that, because visitors were not able to engage with the art through the didactic style of teaching she had employed, she needed to “stop lecturing and begin listening” to her visitors while at the same creating a safe space for them to “question, search, challenge, be moved by, and ultimately bring the work into the context of their own lives without being intimidated or made to feel inadequate.”

Serving as Collections Intern at Old North — guest post by Jessica Nelson

Jessica Nelson wrote this piece for the Old North Foundation’s website, and Old North’s Director of Education Erin Wederbrook Yuskaitis, also from the Tufts program, suggested we share it here. Thanks, Jessica (and Erin)!

 

After almost 300 years of existence, an institution is bound to accumulate an interesting collection of objects. And having interned over the summer with the Old North Foundation, I can certainly confirm that this is a fact. I was brought in to be the first Collections Intern to work with the site, and as such had the opportunity to scour the site’s attic, basement, and many rooms. My responsibility was to document the works of art found within Old North’s campus. Although Old North is not what one would call a collecting institution, it is an historical site that has over time accumulated, often through generous donations from parishioners, a number of interesting and some valuable art pieces. One of the best ways to honor these donations and other acquisitions is through careful preservation.

Even though Old North’s art is not currently shown to the public in a crafted exhibition, it is visible throughout the Foundation and Church offices as well as in parts of the church itself. So as a student learning about the museum field, I was able to apply some of the museum world’s techniques when documenting the artworks at Old North. What exactly does that entail though? Well, I began by numbering the objects and creating condition reports for each one. These reports allowed me to describe the art piece detailing its materials and what it looks like as well as identifying if there is any damage to the piece. Creating these reports helps an institution keep track of the object and monitor how it holds up over time. After making condition reports for every object, I then took pictures of the objects as well. Attaching pictures to the condition reports is another means of recording an object’s condition and can help people who may work with these objects in the future more easily identify them.

 

The Foundation then ordered special archival papers and pens so that I could physically attach the identifying number I had given each object to the object in question. It is important to use archival quality goods as this helps ensure the marking materials won’t damage the art piece over time. I also had the opportunity to conduct some early research on the objects and how they came to Old North. Although many of the art pieces’ stories have been somewhat lost over time, there were a few active members of the church who were quite helpful in recovering their histories. All in all, the project went quite well, and hopefully the work I completed with the help of the Old North Foundation staff will serve as a good base for any future artwork they receive and help insure that all of their art is well preserved for future generations.

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