Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic: Flower Power

by columnist Madeline Karp

I will never forget my first flower show. I had made it through my very first winter in Boston and was terribly, terribly depressed. Even though it was technically springtime, there were no leaves on the trees, a foot of snow on the ground, sweaters filling my closet and two pairs of socks on my feet.

My friend Gretchen, an avid gardener and my constant on-call plant doctor, decided that I needed to be with flowers. Well…probably we had to go for a graduate class, but she decided that really we were going because I needed to be around flowers.

And did I ever.

So when the Please Touch Museum offered me the opportunity to spend a day at the Philadelphia Flower Show promoting our upcoming Storybook Ball among other programs for kids and parents, it took every ounce of my energy not to scream with joy. I love flower shows. They’re like botanical gardens, but edgier. Like conservatories, but trendier. Like museums, but full of flowers.

This garden demonstrates that sometimes MORE is more!

This garden demonstrates that sometimes MORE is more!

I think as museum professionals, we should encourage our visitors, exhibit designers, educators and administrative personnel to attend flower shows, comic cons and design expos. Think I’m crazy? Let me explain.

Like a museum, the Philadelphia Flower Show has a mission.

Hosted by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, the Flower show and all related programs aim to “motivate people to improve the quality of life and create a sense of community through horticulture.”

Don’t museums do the same? Don’t we all want to motivate people to improve the quality of their lives with art, history, and natural sciences? Don’t we all want to create community?

Like a museum, the Philadelphia Flower Show requires careful curation.

There are exhibits on the Flower Show floor. For-profit companies, local landscapers and international volunteers and local enthusiasts demonstrate ways to incorporate garden ornaments, stick unusual plants in to your garden, or use an unconventional space as a garden.

While every exhibit must relate to the show’s theme, it’s also important to vary the exhibition content. If every exhibit were about Harry Potter, umbrellas and the Beatles, the show would get boring very quickly.. If every demonstration included prohibitively expensive plants and tools, a good portion of your audience would be lost and excluded.

Want to make your veranda look like the Herbology Lab at Hogwarts? Here's some inspiration.

Want to make your veranda look like the Herbology Lab at Hogwarts? Here’s some inspiration.

Like a museum, the PFS educates its visitors about specific content.

A huge part of the Flower Show is the Hamilton Horticourt, a space for amateur gardeners to share tips, and compete in a flower competition. As an avid plant murderess, I want – nay, need – someone to teach me how to garden. I want someone to show me her work and say, “you can do this too.” I need someone to tell me “don’t water a cactus” and “do water an African violet, but only from the bottom.”

A visitor takes notes on flower care in Hamilton Horticourt.

A visitor takes notes on flower care in Hamilton Horticourt.

A visitor told me in passing, “I’m so glad they chose England this year. It’s so much more accessible. I feel like I can take home some of these ideas and really put them to good use in my own garden.”

As a museum educator, this is exactly what I want people to do with our content.

Like a museum, the PFS exposes its visitors to new and foreign cultures.

Each year the Flower Show has a theme. Last year’s theme “Islands of Aloha” featured Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. This year’s theme “Brilliant!” focused on the United Kingdom, specifically England. While PHS has only just released a teaser for next year’s show, “ARTiculture” is looking like it’s going to celebrate famous artists through flowers. Fingers crossed we’re in for some re-interpretations of Monet’s garden.

"Octopus's Garden" themed floral arrangement demonstrating creative use of eggshells as garden ornaments. The Beatles' song played nearby on a loop.

“Octopus’s Garden” themed floral arrangement demonstrating creative use of eggshells as garden ornaments. The Beatles’ song played nearby on a loop.

Many people will never get a chance to travel to see Sherwood Forest, Mauna Kea, or Tuscany. The Flower Show is a rare opportunity to get a real and dynamic taste of another place. As a museum, isn’t it also our job to expose visitors to new and different places? Different time periods? Artistic styles? Scientific theories? Political ideologies?

So if the Flower Show is so like a museum…

Why shouldn’t we incorporate some of their design, curation, education and cultural ideas into our own institutions? The thing is, no one tells a flower show what to do. In fact, breaking rules are encouraged, because it’s all about creative design and innovation. The more creative you are, the more flower power you have. It’s all about having fun and learning something new.

 I would never have thought to use umbrellas as a garden ornament, but they're great around this wishing pond!

I would never have thought to use umbrellas as a garden ornament, but they’re great around this wishing pond!

What do you think? What can museums learn from conventions and expos?

Did you attend the Philadelphia Flower Show? How about the Boston Show? Tell me about your experience in the comments!


Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic: Vacuuming Vatican Visitors

by columnist Madeline Karp

If you’ve been following the news these days, then you probably know that there is a new pope in town. It’s a big deal, but I confess, I feel kind of left out when it comes to most things Papal. As an American Jewish girl with a penchant for Zen mediation, the choosing of a new pope is more of a curiosity than the be-all end-all of my spiritual well being.

There are many components of the Roman Catholic religion that elude me. There are many subjects upon which we disagree. Yes, I have gotten into arguments about teaching religion in schools and how to best display religious artifacts as intellectual objects without disrespecting associated beliefs, and whether the Messiah has really come yet or not. My deeply Catholic friends and I have more or less agreed to disagree on many of these topics.  And yet, there are two things upon which we all agree: Genesis and Michelangelo.

Once upon a time a great and powerful deity created a man named Adam, and (S)He put him down in the Garden of Eden and all was well. Then in 1508, Michelangelo was commissioned to paint this story, among others, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and it was deemed a masterpiece.

I did not take this picture in the Sistine Chapel. That would be breaking the rules. But if I *had* taken this picture, rest assured I would not have used flash.

A masterpiece that eventually made it onto the art world’s endangered species list alongside Silver Spring’s “Penguin Rush Hour” mural, Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statie, and the Ecce Homo fresco of Jesus in northern Spain.

You may recall back in the late 1980’s, Vatican conservators, art historians and scientists spent the better part of a decade restoring the Michelangelo’s ceiling and famous Last Judgment fresco. (But if you need, I’ve got painting primers for you here and here. Pun intended.)

Critics and art historians have debated whether the job was done correctly ever since. Some argue that the bicarbonates used in the restoration actually damaged the frescoes, and caused the colors to be more brilliant than Michelangelo ever intended.

Personally, I am so thankful I went to the Vatican several years post-restoration, in 2008. The team left a corner of the chapel untouched, to demonstrate the contrast between the frescoed ceiling as it would have looked pre-1980s, and today. The untouched corner was black. I’m talking charcoal black. I can’t imagine being able to admire or really appreciate the work pre-restoration.

But as we students of conservation and museum collections care know, restorations do not last forever. Eventually dust, dirt, humidity and sunlight creep up on us and slowly destroy our beloved art works, documents and objects. It was only a matter of time before the Sistine Chapel needed a booster shot.

But this time, it’s not the Chapel getting a cleansing. It’s the visitors.

To combat environmental pollutants, the Vatican is now looking to install a state of the art cleansing chamber, through which visitors will have to pass before entering the chapel. The chamber will more or less act as a vacuum and refrigerator – visitors will be dusted off and cooled to an appropriate temperature for optimal artwork viewing.

This solution strikes me as costly and kind of extreme – and yet I sort of can’t wait to get back to the Sistine Chapel to take a stroll through the Vatican Vacuum. It sounds like quite the experience.

What do you think, museum friends? Is this idea too costly? Too extreme? Would it work in other places like the refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie (home of Leonardo’s Last Supper) or the Caves of Lascaux? Let me know what you think in the comments!

To read more about the new cleaning system check out this article from the Daily Beast.

Haven’t been to the Vatican? Take a short stroll through the Sistine Chapel here, courtesy of the History Channel.

Museums in the News

Here’s our weekly round-up of our favorite things that were said about museums this week: the good, the bad, and the really quite strange!

But first, a sad piece of local news. The Higgins Armory Museum will close in December of this year. Their amazing staff, inventive programs, and fantastic collection have definitely captured the museum field’s imagination. So sorry to see this team broken up! Read more on the Boston Globe’s website.


Museums in the News

Here’s our weekly round-up of our favorite things that were said about museums this week: the good, the bad, and the really quite strange!

Get your art fix! (events in next two weeks)

Although we definitely don’t only focus on art museums on this blog… what can I say, the next few weeks are particularly great opportunities to see five amazing and very different shows! From hats to thousands of silicon-casts of fingers forming a prayer rug (not joking!), it’s a good week to be in the Boston area!

  • Thursday, January 24, 5:30-8 p.m. Opening Reception at the Tufts University Art Gallery for their new shows, Illuminated Geographies and Stacy Steers: Night Hunter
  • Tuesday January 29, 6-8 p.m. Opening Receptions at MassArt’s Bakalar & Paine Galleries for their new shows, Passing Time and Graphic Advocacy.
  • Thursday, January 31Museum Meet-up at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem Massachusetts and a chance to see Hats: An Anthology before it closes on February 3. Click for more info.

Got an event that we should know about? Email Phillippa at tufts.museum.blog@gmail.com