Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Category: Museum Topics (page 1 of 17)

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.

Asking Forgiveness Instead of Permission

The Berkshire Museum has gone ahead with the auction and private sale of choice pieces from its collection, including works by Norman Rockwell (whose works were intended for the people of Pittsfield, MA in perpetuity), Alexander Calder, and Frederic Church. They have not yet reached the $55 million cap permitted by the Massachusetts Attorney General, and so may return to the auction block with more pieces, but the majority of the transactions have been completed. In response, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has sanctioned the Berkshire Museum, requesting that the association’s 243 members refuse to lend works to the Berkshire Museum or collaborate with it on exhibitions. In a statement the AAMD stated, “Selling art to support any need other than to build a museum’s collection fundamentally undermines the critically important relationships between museums, donors and the public. When museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, they diminish the opportunity and responsibility to make great works of art available to the public.”

Even as this sanction was issued, other voices in the art and museum world rallied to suggest that the current system is flawed. Artsy suggested that the American Association of Museums’ (AAM) policy which only allows collections to be deaccessioned and sold in order to fund the purchase of more art should be modified to permit more diverse uses. They argue that if the goal of museums is to secure collections for the public good, what good comes of large institutions locking away vast amounts of art that may never be displayed? They propose a modified deaccession policy that gives other institutions first opportunity to acquire works, and allows the proceeds from the sales to be used for other purposes beyond acquisitions.

The AAM’s deaccessioning policy intentionally restricts the use of proceeds from deaccessioned collections to prevent liquidation of assets held for the public good from being used to cover up financial mismanagement or other unethical uses. In a recent statement in response to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling on the Berkshire Museum case, the AAM reiterated their position, “We believe this is a critical issue of ethical conduct and best practice, one tied directly to the public trust. When museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, they diminish the opportunity and responsibility to make our cultural heritage available to the public. This hurts the individual institution and affects the museum field as a whole.”

The AAM and AAMD are certainly working on behalf of the public good, and it is in keeping with their roles as professional organizations  to scrupulously maintain the ethics of the industry, but they may also need to assess their current position. Undoubtedly, institutions across the country with high storage costs and low display space are watching this saga unfold and contemplating if they might withstand the legal and professional scrutiny if it meant they could pursue that capital project, hire that new education staff, or add more robust programming to their schedule. Museums are well aware of their precarious positions in their communities as both trusted sources of information and lean competitors for tourism dollars. It may be time for a careful re-consideration of what constitutes the future of ethical use of funds raised from deaccessioning works. If the AAM  and other professional organizations refuse to seriously consider the issue before institutions, it may be that other museums follow the Berkshire’s lead and ethical debates, court judgements, and sanctions hit the newspapers with a frequency that could alter the public’s faith in museums.

5 Museums That are not a Joke this April Fool’s Day

 

Whether you’re celebrating Passover, Easter, or simply April Fool’s this April 1, here are a few quirky museums that are no joke with their odd collections. Enjoy these fascinating finds!

 

  • The Lunchbox Museum, Columbus, GA
    • Some of these school-day classics displayed in the Lunchbox Museum are worth over two grand. Most of the lunchboxes displayed are made of tin, and range in date from the early to mid 20th The museum’s collector, Adam Woodall Jr. finds the most rewarding part of this museum to be the light in people’s faces when they find the lunchbox that they once took to school.
  • The Twine Ball Museum, Darwin, MN
    • This museum honors the largest ball of twine ever made by one man, along with some other eccentric oddities of this mid-western town. Darwin MN actually celebrates a Twine Ball Day every year-yikes!
  • The International Cryptozoology Museum-Portland, ME
    • Yes, there is actually a museum dedicated to unknown animals, and myths and legends such as BigFoot. The museum carries most of its label interpretation out through questions that seek to relate known animal biology to these creatures with an unproven existence.
  • National Mustard Museum- Middleton, WI
    • This museum features close to 6,000 variations of mustard from all 50 states. The museum also displays antique jars and mustard marketing from days past. The curator of the museum is actually the former Attorney General of the state of Wisconsin-talk about leaving your day job for your side-hustle.
  • The International Banana Museum, Mecca, CA
    • Nestled in California, this museum has everything-and I mean everything- banana related. There are jewelry, creams, cookie jars, pencil sharpeners-you name it, there’s something banana related.

Happy April Fool’s Day everyone!

Museums Amidst the “Me Too”

Women have played the role of artistic muse for millennia, serving as the objects of desire, lust, and love in paintings that offer depictions ranging from fully clothed to stark naked portrayals of the female persona.

Did these women pose willingly? Maybe. One cannot be sure.

Did some women suffer sexual assault or harassment from male artists who wished to portray their figures? Undoubtedly.

In the midst of the #MeToo movement which has spread an awareness of the magnitude of sexual assault and harassment via social media, museums must ask themselves how they fit into such a movement.

Most recently, Chuck Close has been accused of predatory behaviors toward his female subjects, but these accusations also stem back to ancient Greek pottery and painting, Manet, and even Picasso.

So how do we, as museums, deal with the uncomfortable imbalance of power that so often occurred between artist and subject throughout history?

Some might say remove the art- as protesters against Balthus’ work at the Met did, but censoring the exploitation of female subjects, would be censoring a lot of classical work, from Roman murals to the Renaissance to Impressionism, and in a sense would be censoring a large part of human history.

The artwork themselves are not a crime, but the stories behind the inspiration and the relationships between artist and subject may have been,

Museums should acknowledge these heinous acts within their actual context, and discuss the difficult history that surrounds such works. If there is a problematic story surrounding a work, tell it. Celebrate and honor the subjects and the humanity of the works, not the illicit artist.

Furthermore, to throw the buzzword relevance into the mix, museums would do well to tie these past examples of exploitation to current movements against oppression, gender inequality, racism and misogyny. There must be a learning dichotomy for these works that contextualizes the political, social, and racial scenes of these paintings, the problems with the scenes, and a call to action about what we can do today to eliminate these types of power structures in modern day history .

Therefore in addition to social media, #MeToo should be able to find another platform within museums through which difficult topics can be discussed within context, and the stories of those subjected to the acts of corrupt and debauched artists can give voice to those who have been oppressed and silenced by such acts.

Tufts Prison Symposium: Applications of Museum Education

The Tufts Prison Symposium illuminated the role of education in the prison system. During the two-day program, former inmates described their interactions with correctional officers, clinicians, and educators. They advocated to end a dehumanizing system that perpetuates a hierarchy of power and hinders opportunity for both professional and educational advancement. In the final workshop, Tufts students’ reflected on their experiences tutoring at correctional facilities and their unique responsibility as educators.

Tutors  described an educational approach that meets learners where they are, that cultivates a non-hierarchical relationship, that instills a sense of accomplishment, and that shares ownership over the learning process. Additionally, the tutors discussed the importance of valuing the whole learner and incorporating the learner’s experiences into the educational experience. They affirm that the learners’ ideas are valuable. For museum educators, their teaching experiences sounded extremely familiar. The tutors’ teaching methods parallel those in museums.

Emerging museum education philosophies advocate for shared-authority, encouraging learners to use prior experiences to derive personal meaning from the exhibited content. Gallery teaching focuses on skill development and relationship-building, rather than mastery of content. Teaching techniques such as Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) validate multiple perspectives and generate confidence. VTS uses images to inspire discussion and exploration; educators serve as facilitators, rather than content-providers. In this educational model, educators relinquish agendas and permit learners to direct the conversation.

VTS programs typically include a studio project, during which learners produce art that responds to the images they encountered. The art project serves as a tool to express both knowledge and experience. The general public rarely encounters inmates’ personal narratives. The three students who served on the panel recognized that the prison system purposefully segregates inmates from society, contributing to the dehumanization of prisoners. Museums have a responsibility to reflect the experiences of people in the community. The absence of inmates’ stories contributes to a dominant narrative that presents stories from the perspective of those in power.

Perhaps there is an overlooked opportunity for museums to partner with prisons. Such a partnership would provoke questions concerning complicity in the prison system and institutions of power, yet the initiative could create an educational environment that empowers the learner and expands the people we recognize as part of our community fabric.

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