Museums Gone Viral: Chicago’s Talking Statues

Many museums struggle with maintaining a good balance of technology – enough to attract (and keep the attention of) younger crowds, but not so much that visitors who go to museums to “unplug” are unable to do so. The best solution is to give visitors options. They can sign up for the facebook and the instagram feeds; they can walk past the video touch screens. Our new series, Museums Gone Viral, brings you real ways that museums have used technology and the internet to reach a variety of visitor groups.

Chicago, well known for its plethora of outdoor art, has recently stepped up its art game. This summer, statues all over the city began to talk. People can find a statue, like that of Abraham Lincoln and Cloud Gate (the big bean), with a plaque next to it, and wave their phone over the text. They then receive a phone call “from” that statue (which shows up on the caller ID) to hear it talking to them. Anyone with access to a smartphone can engage with the usually taciturn statues. The audio covers everything from silly stories to serious monologues. The best part about the project, which will last about a year, is that it’s totally free – minus the need for a smart phone – and very community centered. The words of the statues were completely written by Chicagoans. Other local famous folks, such as producer Shonda Rhimes and actors Steve Carrell and David Schwimmer, lend their voices to the project.

The statues have been bringing together people who pass by and wonder what the big attraction is. As Colette Hiller, artistic director of the company that created the project, explains, “It’s different from an audio guide. It’s more personal; it takes you by surprise.” This is an interesting thought. The project has roughly the same format as a traditional audio guide – visitors come to an object they want to know more about, are instructed on how to access the audio, and use an electronic device to listen to information on that object. Despite that fact, the mere idea of the audio being more interesting and engaging is seen as being somehow above a regular audio guide. It brings to mind interesting audio guides completed by people like Allison Dufty, who writes fascinating audio guides for a wide variety of audiences and museums. I would be interested to hear what the talking statues project is considered, if not an audio guide.

If you are around Chicago, particularly as the holidays are coming up, head out to any number of places to get a call from the lions outside the Art Institute or the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. Let us know what you think! Is it worth the effort? Would you consider it an audio guide?

Keep your eyes open around Boston – it’s been reported that the same company who created the talking statues in Chicago are considering Boston as one of their next locations! I would love to hear the story that the ducklings in the Boston Public Garden have to tell.

The Toledo Museum of Art Returns Stolen Artifacts

Today we bring you an article by Carlos Lu, a Tufts Master’s candidate in Museum Education. For the course Museums Today: Mission and Function, the foundation course required for all Tufts Museum Studies students, students research and report on a recent article on museums in the news.


The Toledo Museum of Art will return four objects from their collection as well as over 100 items donated to them because they believe that they were stolen from their home country of India. This is indicative of the need for greater care in provenance research upon accessioning of items, that much is clear. The Toledo Museum of Art has not released how much the museum paid for the items it acquired from Subhash Kapoor, but the National Gallery of Australia also did business with the illicit art dealer and have revealed the costs they spent on their transactions.  In total, over ten years, the museum paid over $11 million for the various pieces of art, with one particular item – a dancing Shiva – going for $5 million alone.

This statue, "Ganesha," is one of the objects that the Toledo Museum of Art purchased from Subash Kapoor. Photo Credit: The Blade

This statue, “Ganesha,” is one of the objects that the Toledo Museum of Art purchased from Subash Kapoor.
Photo Credit: The Blade

This statue, “Ganesha,” is one of the objects that the Toledo Museum of Art purchased from Subash Kapoor.
Photo Credit: The Blade

It is considered unlikely that the National Gallery of Australia is going to see a return of this money as Subhash Kapoor, the donor of the artwork in question,  is facing a 14 year jail sentence and has had his finances frozen by three different governments.  For a museum that is an incredible sum of money.  To put the value into perspective, the current salary for a museum professional in Australia is approximately $80 thousand to $90 thousand a year, and that is being extremely generous and providing for a full time position.  If a single individual were hired at this rate whose purpose it was to solely conduct provenience research, a museum would not only save the great sums of money spent on these purchases, but more important a museum would be able to save face from having even accidentally dealt in stolen antiquities. While it may be a lofty and laudable goal to have a position solely dedicated to ensuring the propriety of museum accessions, it is likely not a goal that can be fiscally justified to anyone outside of the field.

But beyond simply doing the job better, what can a museum do in order to pierce the veil of forgeries and purposeful miscommunication?  Subhash Kapoor was involved in one of the largest antiquities trade cartels in recent history, requiring India, Singapore, and the U.S. to perform a collaborative investigative effort that culminated in “Operation Hidden Idol”, a raid across the U.S. by government forces.  If that is the quality of analysis required to determine proper provenance, what hope does any museum institution have?  The Toledo Museum of Art’s staff has less than 100 full time employees with no particular individual whose sole purpose is to research the provenance of acquisitions.  That doesn’t compare to the agencies behind Operation Hidden Idol or the forgers and conmen of the antiquities cartel the operation took down.  So where does that leave museums?

This concept is part of the preventative care required to ensure that a museum is not liable to financial or moral losses should a particular item in its collection be found to be illegal. The only thing the Toledo Museum of Art, and any other institutions that may have purchased from Subhash Kapoor, can do now is return the illegal artifacts to their rightful homes.  But this act is not as simple as it may seem.  Currently the Toledo Museum of Art is working with the Indian Embassy here in the United States to see that the goods it is deaccessioning are returned to India, but is that enough for the museum to do? There is the possibility that, even after trying the various legal channels that are available, the true home of these stolen objects is not found. Returning the art to its original location is clearly the desired option, but provided that is not possible, then the Toledo Museum of Art’s responsibility ought to be to keep the object rather than return it to the Indian government. An alternative to this solution to satiate nationalistic claims is for the Toledo Museum of Art to make arrangements not with the Indian government, but with an institution within India that can dedicate itself to providing the same level of care for the objects or better.

The Toledo Museum of Art and several more museums across the world have fallen prey to one of the largest illegal art trade cartels in the past century.  This illegal art trade will not go away any time soon.  It cannot be denied that the museum has a part to play in the continuation of the illegal antiquities market.  With this in mind museums must do their utmost best to create an air of scrutiny around their purchases, to demonstrate their willingness to examine the validity of the provenience of their purchases.  If museums can show that they will not play any part in anything remotely suspicious with regards to art sales, then perhaps that much change can be made towards stopping the trade all together.


For more information on this topic, please see these articles.


Calling All Writers!

Now that fall is starting to get under way (sorry to say), we’d like to put out a call for any students or museum professionals who might want to write a guest post for this blog! Whether you have a vague idea of a topic you are interested in, you have something already written and are looking for a place to make it public, or you’re somewhere in between, we’d love to hear from you! You are also more than welcome to take something you have written for class and transform it into a post. You do not need to be a professional writer to contribute to the blog – Jess and I are happy to help with editing. From one time posts to recurring series, we are open to ideas.

If this sounds like something you are interested in, please email Colleen and Jess, your trusty co-editors, at tuftsmuseumblog[at]gmail[dot]com.

Would You Make It As A Curator in 1910? recently published an article describing the tests that curators in 1910 were supposed to be able to pass. If you had the right education and could answer questions about what (and how) you collect things, you were on your way. But curators had to have a little something…more. Other valued skills? Having good “family connections,” along with the ability to ride a horse, steer a canoe, and discuss the correct education and age level that museums should reach. The test consists of 34 short answer questions, like “What do you consider the principal requirements for a satisfactory museum building? (Consider at least five points)”

Some of the questions are still discussed today, such as, “Should a museum receive gifts subject to restrictions posed by the donor?” After all of that, the test requires a 3000 word thesis on the correct organization of a natural history museum. Worried that the test was too simple, allowing just about anyone to become a curator? Not to worry, you should also have a set of personality qualifications that set you apart:

“After the candidate has safely negotiated the above questions he is supposed to be able to pass muster in the following regard. He should have good health, ability to handle a horse and canoe, and be inured to the hardships of camp life and the work of exploration.”

Want to check out other questions on the test? Click here for the test published in Proceedings of the American Association of Museums.

“Modern Art, Ancient Wages”: MoMA Staff Protests and Museums as Employers

MoMa workers protest outside Party in the Garden benefit. Photograph: Stacey Anderson, from The Guardian

MoMa workers protest outside Party in the Garden benefit. Photograph: Stacey Anderson, from The Guardian

Last Tuesday was MoMA’s annual Party in the Garden, a benefit that honors artists and boasts an impressive VIP guest list. This year, the guests, who paid $25,000 to $100,000 per table, were greeted by dozens of museum staff with signs that read “Modern Art, Ancient Wages” and “MoMA, Don’t Cut Our Healthcare.” The protest, organized by MoMA staff and their union, is in response to proposed cuts to their healthcare plan. While there is a long and rich history of protesting MoMA, these actions highlight the politics of museum employment that extend far beyond MoMA’s midtown territory.

Art history is a strange field. Our scholarship focuses on a world full of very expensive objects with actual monetary values and still manage to produce volumes of fundamentally Marxist-dominated discourse. Art museums are steeped in cultural capital and often have correspondingly high admission fees (obviously, MoMA is no exception to this). However, the salaries of museum employees, the people who are responsible for the museum’s daily function, rarely correlate to the public view of museums as places of wealth.

Victoria Wong, a library assistant at MoMA, truthfully told Hyperallergic that “nobody gets a job at a museum to become a millionaire.” Unless you’re working at the very top, the museum world is overly competitive and underpaid (not the mention the gendered and racialized politics of who becomes directors). American artist Fred Wilson perfectly proved the disjuncture between the visibility and respect of different positions in the museum when he dressed in a guard’s uniform and was subsequently ignored by the visitors as part of his 1991 installation, Guarded View.

Black headless mannequins dressed as museum guards, from Fred Wilson's Guarded View. Image from Arts Observer.

Black headless mannequins dressed as museum guards, from Fred Wilson’s Guarded View. Image from Arts Observer.

So why do we choose to enter this field? Personally, I’m doing it because I genuinely care about preserving all material forms of history and displaying them for public access. And although the answer will undoubtedly vary between individuals, I’d bet we all have a honest connection and dedication to the true mission of museums. And if you follow the MoMA Local 2110’s instagram, you’ll get a taste of their undying love for MoMA’s collection, even while protesting. However, no institution should take advantage of its employees’ honest commitment without proper compensation. We talk a lot about making museums inviting and attractive to the public, but we also should hold them to the same standards as workplaces for employees.