Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Category: Reviews (page 1 of 4)

The Irish Atlantic at the Massachusetts Historical Society: Opportunity for Exploration, but a Famine of Function

 

This exhibition review comes from Max Metz, who is in his second year in the Masters of Museum Education program and is the Manager and Anne Larner Educator at the Durant-Kenrick House and Grounds of Historic Newton. To see more of Max’s contributions to the blog, click here.

The Irish Atlantic: A Story of Famine, Migration, and Opportunity is at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) from March 10th, 2017 to September 22nd, 2017. (Photo of Entry) (Photo: Signature Object – Ship’s Wheel) The exhibition tells the story of the importance of the Irish in Boston and the reasons behind their tough journey across the Atlantic to the U.S. Focusing on the 18th and 19th centuries, The Irish Atlantic articulates the various phases of emigration to Boston, from Presbyterians fleeing the harsh economic realities of Ireland in the 18th century, to the hordes fleeing famine in their homeland caused by potato blight in the middle of the 19th century. Curators paid attention to the perception of Irish immigrants by Bostonians and revealed the harsh criticism and discrimination they faced as they began to assimilate into US culture. Centering around religious, familial, and political centers, The Irish Atlantic shows the strong identity that immigrants created by blending the old and new world views over successive generations.

The exhibit is organized around its subtitle: famine, migration, and opportunity. Although the interpretive trail is somewhat ambiguous through the exhibition, I believe if visitors interacted with at least two screens and read 50% of the label text, they would have left with this enduring idea. As a strength, the exhibition was able to tell this story with a unique pairing of three-dimensional artifacts and historic archival material. The space’s elegance lent itself well to the overall look and feel of the exhibition. (Photo: Exhibition Quote) Although I personally appreciated the regal ambiance of the space, it was difficult to associate the feel of the exhibition to the fatigue, famine, frustration felt by immigrants as they arrived to the city. Simple, muted Irish colors and intentional placement of Celtic symbols aided the visitor in connecting previous experiences or stories with the Irish to the exhibition.

In evaluating the exhibition, I prefer to use Beverly Serrell’s Framework: Assessing Excellence in Exhibitions from a Visitor-Centered Perspective, which analyzes comfort, engagement, reinforcement, and meaningfulness. I believe this model is strong due to is combination of both qualitative, feeling statements – the same statements that visitors will make in the museum – and a quasi-quantitative method of ranking and rating aspects to come up with a level of success for each of the four main criteria. The final rankings for the criteria range between Level 1 – Excellent and Level 6 – Counterproductive. Constructively presenting my critical assessment of the exhibition, I go through each criterion (comfort, engagement, reinforcement, and meaningfulness) and discuss the successes and opportunities for improvement in my view as a museum professional and as a visitor. (This evaluation is based on my visit to the exhibit on March 25th, 2017 – the exhibition may have changed since then.)

Comfort: Level 4 – Acceptable

This exhibition was successful in in that the main text panels and smaller object labels used large text size and simple font that was very easy to read, yet stylized. The lighting was very good and illuminated the visitors’ choices and options for learning and viewing diverse portions of the exhibit, making them feel in control of their own experiences. (Photo: Visitors’ Choices) Unfortunately, thinking constructively, there were no convenient places to rest in the entire exhibition. Additionally, it was difficult to hear with the loud HVAC system and the competing video panel soundtracks when used simultaneously in the space. Furthermore, when arriving to the exhibition there were no orientation signs telling visitors where to start and what galleries were part of the exhibition. This caused the visitor to enter and walk to the right, focusing on two signature artifacts (a harp and a ship’s wheel) and then entering a portrait gallery not part of the exhibition. Lastly, although I believe the content of the exhibition was most likely designed for the organization’s primary audience, I do not believe that its language welcomed people of different cultural backgrounds, economic classes, or educational levels – i.e. the average person off the street.

Engagement: Level 4 – Acceptable

The physical environment was designed successfully – interesting and inviting exploration – partly due to the good look and feel of the exhibit, great color choices, and interesting architectural features of the historic building. Exhibits caught my attention and enticed me to slow down, to look, interact, and spend time attending to many elements. The exhibition had a large variety of videos that could be played on their five different touchscreens, had graphic explanations of data, included artistic endeavors of immigrants, and focused on the religious experience of many immigrants. (Photo: Imagery) Although the videos were engaging, they were difficult to use, even as a digital native. During my time in the exhibition watching 10+ visitors use the space, not one visitor used the screens. (Photo: Touchscreens) I believe without the videos the visitor does not get the full story and connections between the somewhat disparate sections. The exhibition in general did not encourage social interaction. I did not hear a single visitor conversing about the exhibition topics or exhibition material, or talking at all for that matter.

Reinforcement: Level 5 – Misses Opportunities

I do believe that the information and ideas in different parts of the exhibition were complementary and successfully reinforced each other, albeit not necessarily well communicated with orientation signs. (Photos: Reinforcement) The exhibition was a bit overwhelming and daunting due to the amount of labels, archival text, and an unknown size of the exhibit in general. I often had to read labels in a series a few times before I was able to get the complex timeline of events to create the context in which to view the other artifacts. Although in retrospect I saw the organization of the exhibition as the subtitle (famine, migration, and opportunity), I did not note that logic in the moment. I think this could have been because of the lack of orientation at the beginning as well.

Meaningfulness: Level 2 – Very Good 

Ideas and objects in the exhibition were made relevant to and easily integrated into the visitor experience. The juxtaposition of paintings and artifacts encouraged the visitor to engage with the archival text materials and were supported by other archival images. (Photo: Supporting Artifacts) Furthermore, the exhibition made a case that its content had value. Especially in this time in the U.S., the material was timely, important, and resonated with the visitors’ values. As good exhibitions do, The Irish Atlantic touched on universal human concerns and didn’t shy away from deep or controversial issues. I do believe it could have gone farther and asked visitors to ponder questions of the time, however I think the content was relevant and universal in its themes. The exhibit experience promoted change in people’s thinking and feeling, even transcendence with regard to Irish immigrants and historically Irish-American communities. The exhibition gave visitors the means to make generalizations and change their beliefs and attitudes. However, constructively, there was not any way for visitors to take action after the exhibition, no way to take the information and make change in the community or voice their discoveries.

Overall, I think that this exhibit was what one might expect from a historical society with resources and connections like that of the Massachusetts Historical Society. (Photo: Resource Connections) I think their use of technology was very encouraging, however the use of the technology by visitors was less promising as a successful means to connect to their primary audience. It was an aesthetically pleasing exhibition rich with authentic artifacts and texts. Additionally, it provided an online companion website that increased engagement, accessibility, and understanding of the overall story. This included the timeline of events that I needed to develop context, all the video interviews that I couldn’t necessarily hear or was not able to initiate, additional information about MHS collections within the exhibition, and a general overview of the exhibition story. The MHS team also provided five specific programs, open to the public, over the course of the opening months to give further depth and specificity, and encourage increased visitation.

With three quick fixes, 1) increased orientation about direction and scope of the exhibition, 2) directions on how to effectively use the screens and the time commitment that will be needed to view each video, and 3) a few easily placed chairs to rest and enjoy the elegant building, the exhibit would move beyond the status quo of historical society exhibitions to something of a benchmark in the field. The exhibition is on show until September 22nd, 2017. More photos of the entire exhibition are available here.

Reykjavik in 4 Museums

Today’s post comes to you from Erin Wederbrook Yuskaitis, current Tufts Museum Studies Certificate candidate and Director of Education for the Old North Church & Historic Site.

On a recent trip to Iceland, my husband Chris and I visited several different museums in Reykjavik over the course of three days. While museums constituted only a portion of our overall schedule in Iceland, they gave us the grounding we needed to understand such an incredible culture. I offer this light-hearted review partially written as a personal reflective exercise and partially written as a short summary for other travelers by someone in the museum industry.

We started with Reykjavik 871: The Settlement Exhibition, a new archaeological exhibit located underneath a building. In 2001, the oldest relics of human habitation in Reykjavik were discovered, including a hall (longhouse) from the 10th century preserved in its original location as the focal point of the exhibition. We learned so much about early life in Viking Age Iceland, a land so ancient it’s hard to fathom. One interesting fact is that Iceland used to be much warmer than it is now, so farming would not have been as bitter and god-awful as one might imagine nowadays. The climate was much more temperate. The exhibit featured incredible digital technology, which helped tell the story and complete the scene set by the ancient stones. The experience at Reykjavik 871 only requires about an hour, so it’s easy to squeeze in any number of travel plans.

We decided to continue our afternoon at the Saga Museum, a place high on my list of priorities because it recreates Viking life. Chris was not too impressed with the experience, but I enjoyed it mostly because I learned a great deal about Icelandic history (and I’m a sucker for history dioramas). The Saga Museum essentially consists of eighteen vignettes of life-like Vikings in different scenarios that tell the stories of the Icelandic sagas. You walk through a path to each vignette and listen to an audio guide that highlights each saga. We got to “meet” the famous heroes and infamous villains in Viking stories that include Leif’s discovery of America, the founding of the world’s oldest parliament, and epic clan feuds. Afterwards, we watched a video on how the museum created the silicone figures, weapons, and clothing. THEN we got to dress up like Vikings! I was totally in my element, and Chris even got a chuckle out of wearing the extremely heavy helmets and holding the huge swords. How could anyone fight wearing all that metal?? This participatory experience at the end cemented our understanding of Viking life and offered some good ole dress-up fun. This museum requires a bit more time to get the full effect, so plan for at least two hours.

The next day we visited the National Museum of Iceland, a jewel of a museum: well-organized, extremely clean and navigable, extensive in its history but manageable to accomplish in an afternoon. The museum preserves the national heritage of Iceland, housing some 300,000 historic and cultural artifacts that date back to the 9th century. The first floor features the museum shop and cafe, a changing photo gallery, and a lecture hall. The second and third floors consist of the permanent exhibition, tracing Iceland’s roots from 800 – present day (the second floor also contains a temporary art exhibit space). Because Iceland’s history is long and complicated, we found this museum extremely helpful in piecing together the larger picture. We developed a greater understanding of the “history periods” of Iceland: dawn of Icelandic society (Viking Age), reign of the Christian Chieftains, Norwegian rule, Danish rule, Absolutism, nation state and development, and “modern world” Iceland. The current building was constructed in 1950 not long after Iceland achieved its independence, but major renovations to the museum and its exhibitions took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the “new” National Museum opening in 2004. The exhibitions blended digital technology with impressive display cases and interesting layouts, resulting in a rich and meaningful museum experience. Plan for a full half day at this museum if you’re one to read exhibit text; if not, a few hours should suffice.

Our third day, we headed to the Einar Jonsson Museum, located conveniently across the street from the apartment where we stayed! We’d seen the building but had not ventured inside yet. As we only had about an hour before the museum closed, we zipped our way through the small museum in a mere 40 minutes. Einar Jonsson was Iceland’s first sculptor and a delightfully peculiar artist. He built the museum himself to house many of his works and then built living quarters for himself and his wife on the top floor. His work is dark and existential. He rejected naturalistic depiction and classical art tradition, instead using mythological and religious motifs believing that artists should forge their own creative paths. His paintings feature bright colors and interesting figures, providing a fabulous contrast to the monochrome of his sculptures. Johnson’s efficient living quarters gave us a unique glimpse into his personality. Chris and I both greatly enjoyed our foray into Icelandic art as well as the opportunity to discuss the artwork after several days of focusing purely on history. Do not let the imposing exterior fool you – it does not give a true sense of the exquisite beauty on the inside!

These four museums encapsulate Iceland and its story, and I highly recommend visiting any of them the next time you want to take a short four hour and 45 minute flight to a unique destination!

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Erin is the Director of Education for the Old North Church & Historic Site, serves on the planning committee for the Greater Boston Museum Educators Roundtable, and gives Art + Medicine gallery talks at the MFA with her husband when they can find the time. She is taking her sweet time finishing the museum education certificate program amidst having babies and working. Drop her a line at education@oldnorth.com.

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!

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