Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Category: exhibit reviews

The JFK Presidential Library and Museum’s Exhibit, “To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis” Lends A Voice To The Past

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, located along the waterfront just south of Boston, serves as the nation’s official memorial to John F. Kennedy. The institution boasts an incredible research collection consisting of over 8.4 million pages of paper, approximately 400,000 photographs, thousands of audio recordings, and 8 million feet of film. The museum also features a permanent exhibit that offers a highly immersible experience about JFK’s running for presidency in 1960 and the Kennedy White House years that followed.

I went to the JFK Library and Museum over this past weekend to see their current special exhibition, “To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” The exhibit chronicles the daily events and conversations between the President and White House personnel as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded. As you travel through the crisis day by day, you get a sense of the gripping intensity faced under the threat of nuclear war, as well as the furious work that went in to preventing it.

Audio recordings throughout the exhibit not only magnify the event but they create a more powerful experience for the exhibit goer in that they add a human element to what otherwise would be an exhibit consisting of text and objects. As you wind through “To the Brink,” you have the opportunity of listening to various conversations between JFK and his advisors, from the initial debriefing on photographic evidence of Soviet missiles present in Cuba, to the President eerily grappling with, and saying, “You’re talking about the destruction of a country.” The recordings give a literal voice to the event and to history from those most close to it.


Along these lines, the exhibit examines the Cuban Missile Crisis from the perspectives of Nikita Krushchev and Fidel Castro through their own written words as well. This is helpful in that it lends a better look at what is considered to be perhaps the closest call to thermonuclear war in history.

For a total of thirteen days in October of 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis gripped the world. Fifty-two years later, this dramatic exhibition brings you back to those harrowing days as if you were in the midst of the White House deliberations yourself.


The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is open every day from 9am to 5pm except major holidays.

Art or Toy?

Last week, I visited the MFA with my friend and her five month old son, Lucas. We’re doing our part to create a museum advocate of the future. Lucas was especially engaged in the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art. He remained content for a surprising amount of time, simply looking at all of the interesting objects around him. Spotting Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Beginning), a green and silver beaded curtain which is deliberately hung as a partition between two galleries, my friend immediately walked Lucas through it. When she turned to pass through a second time, the employee stationed nearby informed her, rather unkindly, “it’s art, not a toy.” Now I understand the need to protect a work of art, but this particular object is meant to be experienced by touching, looking closely and even listening to the lovely sound it makes when the beads are moved. I don’t imagine they would have hung it in a busy entryway if it wasn’t durable enough to endure constant handling. So, if a visitor is handling an object with appropriate care, why shouldn’t they be allowed to experience it more than once? If a visitor, even a five month old one, is interested enough to linger instead of simply passing through en route to something else, isn’t that a good thing? Visitors are often uncomfortable in museums; they may feel unsure of the etiquette and what they may and may not touch. It concerns me that by encouraging visitors to touch a work of art, but then reprimanding them for wanting to touch it again, employees of the museum may cause visitors to feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. That surely was not the intention when it was installed. So what do you think? Can it be art and a toy? Is it less of a work of art if visitors are allowed to touch it as much as they like? I encourage you to visit and see it for yourself. Be sure to pay close attention the first time around though, because you might not be allowed to pass through twice.

Beauty as Duty at the MFA

Imagine that each person in your family has 36 coupons per year as a clothing allowance. A coat might require fifteen coupons, while a scarf might require 2 coupons. How far can you stretch those coupons? What do you do if a clothing item gets damaged? What do you do when children grow out of the clothes they already have? These were real concerns for the British public in June 1941 when clothing rationing was put into effect. Despite these limitations, however, there was a surge of colorful clothing and propaganda scarves. The exhibition, “Beauty as Duty: Textiles on the Homefront in WWII Britain,” gets its title from these items.

Set against a backdrop of grim, gray walls, the cheerful colors and eye-catching prints of the dresses and scarves on exhibit really stand out like beacons. Likewise, after years of wartime hardship, these fashions were created to catch the eye and boost morale. Though these items were made to meet standards of utility and austerity (limited fabric, buttons, and trim), they are examples of making the best of very little. Not only for beauty, many of the scarves contain messages of patriotism and support for Allied forces and reminders of safety and discretion. Through the use of textiles, photographs, video, and materials distributed by the British government, the exhibition sets up the juxtaposition of determined positivity during a dark period of struggle for the British public. The exhibition can be viewed at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston through May 28, 2012.

New England Forests Exhibit At the Harvard Museum of Natural History

We have a new voice here at the TMSB. Oren is in the Museum Education MA program and he brings us a great review of a new exhibit. If you’d like to write an exhibit review and post it here, we’re happy to have it! Just write me directly – amanda.gustin[at]tufts[dot]edu.

They don’t make museums like Harvard’s Museum of Natural History anymore. The galleries are wall-to-wall with vitrines, populated with menageries of mounted or skeletal remains of animals – some extinct, some not, some soon-to-be. A motley group of large and medium sized mammals are crowded together, without environmental context, in great glass cases. In one room a section of a whale’s skeleton stretches across the entire length of a wall, with little more than a card by way of explanation. There is an entire room with cases and cases of glass flowers, seeds and leaves, gorgeously rendered to the most precise detail, for the sake of botanical study. The effect is that of a Louvre of outmoded natural history exhibits. It’s fantastic to behold, if you like that sort of thing – which, in fact, I do. It’s impressive and you can learn a lot, there’s no denying it. Still, wandering in the museum’s halls, gaping at the extraordinary collection, you sometimes get the feeling that the years of effort to modernize and contextualize museum exhibits, to make them user-friendly and interactive, have barely made their way into the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

But this past spring, in time for the United Nation’s International Year of Forests 2011, the HMNH opened a new exhibition. The New England Forests exhibition is different from what you usually see at the HMNH – it’s more interactive; you can touch it; media is quietly integrated throughout. (For the sake of full disclosure: I edited several of the exhibit’s videos on the touch-screen kiosks, working for an educational media group.)

Rather than isolating species of plants and animals, the exhibition stresses the interdependence within forests, as well as characteristics specific to New England forests. Not surprisingly there is good news and bad news. The forests of this region are vibrant, but unexpectedly young. They are growing rapidly, and this provides scientists an opportunity to learn how forests mature. As with so many other systems, the more we study forests the more we learn how intricate the interdependence of everything in the forest is. That can mean strength when life forms support each other. It can also mean fragility when a variable is introduced – for example invasive species, pollution or climate change. With development threatening to section off forests, weakening them further, New England forests have reached a crossroads. Policy decisions need to be made on how to manage our forests. As with forest life, in politics nothing works in isolation. For decisions to be made alliances must be forged, deals have to struck and budgets have to be divided and allocated.

The New England Forests exhibit doesn’t deal with politics, but it does touch on what some of the forest management options are. And it handles the complicated science of our forests with clarity. The beautifully fabricated exhibit takes up one modest room. It doesn’t change the character of the Harvard Museum of Natural History – and I wouldn’t want it to. But it’s nice to see an exhibit there that tackles important current issues with a contemporary approach.

For more information go to the Harvard Museum of Natural History website ( You can find reference to this exhibit if you click on the “On exhibit” link, and then on “Permanent exhibits.”

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