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Author: ecolwe01

“New Ways to Talk About Nature” at the AAM Annual Conference

The next few weeks we will be posting reflections from students who attended the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and Conference, held in St. Louis, Missouri, May 6-10. This first post comes from Erica Colwell, a current M.A. candidate in the Museum Education program. To see more of Erica’s work on the blog, click here

At a session titled “New Ways to talk About Nature” at this year’s American Alliance of Museums Annual Conference in St. Louis, educators from several natural history museums presented projects and exhibitions their respective museums had recently undertaken to reach new audiences, build lasting community partnerships, and to more successfully interpret not only the specimens within their museums, but also the natural world outside their museums. The talks of two of the most compelling speakers, Karen Wise and Beth Redmond-Jones, are summarized below.

Karen Wise, former Vice President of Education and Exhibits at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, explained that for too long, natural history museums have remained “dead zoos”— static, stodgy places with bones and specimens that are cut off from nature, despite purporting to educate visitors about the living world around them. Wise stated that many children from urban Los Angeles may not have many opportunities to explore nature, or may not realize what around them constitutes nature. In an effort to better support this audience, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County underwent a major renovation several years ago in order to update its exhibits, programs, and to become an indoor/outdoor museum. The outdoor part of the museum now hosts a habitat garden with plants and animals native to Southern California, and the researchers and scientists that work at the museum often conduct their research at outdoor sites on the museum’s grounds where visitors can see the scientists at work, and perhaps even take part in an active research project. “Citizen Science,” a phrase used to describe getting community members involved with scientific research, is an important tool according to Wise. She wants the Museums’ visitors to feel that they are scientists themselves, and that they know enough to be able to contribute to the important work that goes on at the museum. The Museum’s website has a page dedicated to citizen science opportunities, and states that “In order to understand our city better, the Museum has begun a long-term biodiversity study of urban habitats and surrounding natural areas. Our goal is to not only increase our knowledge of local wildlife, but also to involve our local community in this study. From lizards to ladybugs, we need your help in each of our community science projects — the Museum can’t do it alone! “

Beth Redmond-Jones, the Senior Director of Public Programs at the San Diego Natural History Museum, spoke about an exhibition her museum’s library opened in order to attract visitors who don’t typically consider themselves “science people.” The San Diego Natural History Museum has an exceptional library full of nature-related rare books, manuscripts, maps, and more. Called Extraordinary Ideas, the exhibition featured, according to the Museum’s website, “Rare books, art, photographs, and historical documents from the Research Library’s 56,000-volume collection that pay homage to the past, present, and future of citizen science” including treasures like “An extremely rare copy of the gigantic Double Elephant Folio of John James Audubon’s Birds of America. The folio, one of only a few copies in existence, depicts life-size renditions of a wide variety of North America’s birds.” This exhibition’s goal was to share some of the library’s most interesting and scientifically valuable collection items with the public, and in doing so, attract visitors that are interested in books, illustrations, art, and history instead of just biology. Redmond-Jones called this exhibition interdisciplinary, because though it still revolved around nature, the theme of the exhibition was closely linked to the humanities.

Rapid Response Collecting: Not All Objects are Created Equal

Today we bring you an article by Erica Colwell, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Studies certificate program. For Museums Today: Mission and Function, the foundation course required for all Museum Studies students, students research and report on a recent topic regarding museums in the news.

In 2014, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London announced a new collecting strategy: rapid response collecting. This type of collecting involves a team of curators that “scour the streets—in a global sense—for items of interest and get them into the museum as quickly as possible.” The goal is to collect objects that are relevant to the present time, in hopes of creating an exhibition that will be updated regularly.

The curators on the rapid response team are putting a lot of thought into the objects they are bringing into the V&A’s collection. Collecting objects that represent current global culture is no easy task, in part because the scope of the collecting strategy is so broad. Some of the objects the V&A has collected via the rapid response method include the world’s first 3D-printed gun, an electronic cigarette, and Katy Perry false eyelashes.3 An eclectic array of objects, it is not immediately apparent why these items are being considered “museum worthy.” Kieran Long, the Senior Curator of Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital at the V&A, offers the following argument for her decision to add the Katy Perry false eyelashes to the collection:

This apparently insignificant object unfolds a wide range of histories and worlds, involving several timely issues that link at a stroke the magic of Cleopatra, as played by Elizabeth Taylor in 1963, to what some would consider the darkest excesses of global consumer capitalism, encompassing theatre and performance, gender theory, images of the feminine…

While this is an impressive argument, such an argument could be made for virtually any object, because every object has a history. A curator could pick up a roll of paper towels and explain how our society has moved from the hand-made to the mass-produced, from the essential to the disposable. Not all objects are created equal.

Even though there may be no right or wrong answer to the question “what is art,” some of the objects collected via the rapid response method are more “museum-worthy” than the Katy Perry false eyelashes. The set of Christian Louboutin stilettos in different shades of nude representing the skin colors of women of different races is one such object. The shoes are art in the fashion sense (the shoes are beautiful) and the conversation-sparking sense (racial inequality is a hot-button issue for many in the world today.) The key is to have an argument that will convince visitors that viewing the object is worthwhile. In fact, getting people to talk about why one object is art and another object is not art is one of the best conversations a curator could hope to start amongst their museum’s visitors. The Louboutin set of stilettos is therefore an example of rapid response collecting done right.

While many might rejoice at a museum displaying objects that are truly current, some are wary of collecting objects in this way. I believe rapid response collecting could be a great thing, though it is possible to take it too far. Though museums cannot ignore the art and design being created today if they want to remain relevant, the arguments behind some of the objects being collected via the rapid response method are stronger than others. Since it is often the relevance of an object over time that indicates its value, collecting objects without that passage of time could mean that the choice of objects is based solely on the tastes of those curators doing the collecting.

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