Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Category: Reviews (page 1 of 6)

Agecroft Hall: A Tudor-Era American Home

Summertime is often the season when I, as I am sure many of our readers as well, will go and explore various museums. Seeing as how I am from Virginia, this usually means going to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts or the (newly renamed) Virginia Museum of History & Culture. One of my absolute favorite hidden gems in Richmond, however, is Agecroft Hall. A beautiful Tudor-era English manor house that was brought over piece-by-piece in the early twentieth century from its original place in England, Agecroft Hall is a unique blend of early modern architecture with modern conveniences (such as closets and radiators).

Agecroft Hall

The tours that visitors are treated to at Agecroft are likewise an interesting mix of early modern English history and the estate’s twentieth-century history of how it made its way from England to the US due to the popular desires to have European-style homes. T.C. Williams, Jr., the man who purchased Agecroft and had it brought over to Richmond, actually wanted to create a kind of Tudor-style neighborhood surrounding Agecroft Hall (although this didn’t ultimately happen, Agecroft’s neighbor is likewise an early modern English-style home). Some visitors, I think, will be unsure of how to feel about a very historic English home being taken from its original grounds and brought over and adapted to fit 1920s standards of living; I know I at least was not sure what to think of this initially. However, Agecroft Hall was on the verge of collapse due to mining in the surrounding English countryside and had fallen into disrepair. So while extra closet spaces and radiators are perhaps not quite what is usually done in the maintaining of an historic house – indeed, nor is changing the entire floor plan, as Williams chose to do – at least Agecroft Hall was given a kind of second life as the home-turned-museum in Richmond, Virginia. This choice was also not made without much thought and care – Agecroft Hall only left England with the approval of Parliament after a debate.

For me, it is also so interesting to think of how much conservation and preservation work has developed from the time when Agecroft Hall was brought over to the US to today. I think that while the methods perhaps are not what would have been done now, that the spirit of wanting to ensure the survival – at least in some capacity – of a historically significant building is something that is in common between past and present efforts.

Gardens at Agecroft Hall, modeled after the gardens of Hampton Court Palace

The museum also is such a wonderful opportunity to learn about and experience these kinds of historic houses that usually one would have to fly overseas to Europe in order to see. As my area of focus is early modern England, you can imagine my delight when I first went to Agecroft Hall. The majority of the museum is staged just as an early modern home would have been in its day, giving visitors an idea of what life in a manor house like Agecroft Hall would have been like for both servants and the family. Rich tapestries and wood furniture darkened with age; portraits of Elizabethan courtiers; a curiosity cabinet; herbals and King James I’s treatise on the evils of witchcraft; and, most exciting of all, a pardon with Elizabeth I’s own beeswax seal. These are only some of the wonderful artifacts on display at this fascinating historic house and I know I can’t wait to go visit again as soon as I can.

A Reflection on Lee Mingwei’s ‘Sonic Blossom’

Museums in the Boston area have started reopening this past week. I am very eager to get back out there to visit my old haunts and find new exhibits to explore. I have not had the opportunity to visit one yet, so instead I wanted to take this week’s blog post to reflect on a past museum experience. Last fall, I went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to analyze a tour for ‘Teaching and Learning in Museums.’ Also last fall, Lee Mingwei’s Sonic Blossom was visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as part of their special exhibition In the Company of Artists.

Lee Mingwei

Lee Mingwei is a Taiwanese-American artist known for his intimate participatory experiences. While Lee cared for his mother after her surgery, they listened to Franz Schubert’s Lieder. “These songs came as an unexpected gift to us, one that soothed us both and clearly helped with her healing.” Lee Mingwei’s goal with Sonic Blossom is to spread the gift of healing and transformation with Lieder. Professional opera singers were to move through art galleries, offer participants the gift of song, lead them to a chair, and serenade them. This is where I come in.

I had just finished my tour, learning about Isabella Stewart Gardner’s eccentric life and art collection, and found myself wandering the first floor galleries when a woman in an ornate robe slowly approached me. She asked: “May I give you a gift of song?” At this point I had no idea what Sonic Blossom was, so I agreed. I assumed that I would join a group of people for a special presentation on Gardner’s collection of instruments. Perhaps she was collecting an audience for a small demonstration. I was wrong.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum courtyard.

The singer lead me to a single chair in the courtyard and began singing to me, and only me, with very intense eye contact. At the Gardner, the courtyard is the center of the whole museum, a lush garden surrounded by cloisters, and visible throughout the museum. When the music started, all visitors seemed to turn and stare, heads popping out of archways like little prairie dogs. This was not what I signed up for. My eyes flitted back and forth, occasionally making contact with the singer to let her know that I appreciated her talent while managing the awkwardness of the very public and very intimate performance. My heart was pounding, my face was flushing, and I had no idea what to do with my hands. After four minutes (or an hour, who’s to say?), the performance ended. I sheepishly thanked the singer and sunk back into the shadows of the galleries.

I wish I had known what I was getting into when I agreed to receive “a gift of song,” but knowing myself, I would have declined. I’m grateful for Sonic Blossom for pushing me out of my comfort zone. Throughout the rest of my visit, I paid special attention to the later performances, both appreciating their beauty and feeling immense relief that I was no longer the one in the chair. Now that nine months have passed, I can reflect more on the magic of Sonic Blossom. I was very lucky to experience a beautiful opera performance in a palatial courtyard. Was I healed or transformed? It’s hard to say, but it is certainly something that I will not forget anytime soon.

Field Trip Through Time

The opportunity to travel into the past has arisen at the National Museum of Natural History in D.C. The famous Fossil Hall has been closed for renovations the past five years, and I am in the lucky position of being around when it reopened with its new exhibit: Deep Time, funded by a whopping $35 million from David Koch. Despite Koch’s controversial ties to this exhibit, I’m hoping this little peek will inspire you to travel back in time with the Smithsonian.

First, let me briefly describe the old gallery. It was basically two paths one could take between static displays of bones and replicas of said bones. There were wooden barriers keeping the visitor at bay. There was frankly little color besides white and brown—some pops of green to give the impression that we are amongst some Jurassic Park ferns. Walking through this ancient exhibit, you couldn’t feel the danger that these giant beasts once held. Those real-life monsters were once the rulers of the land, and the old Fossil Hall had its shining moment a few decades ago, but it was due for a reboot.

The new director explained how the original Fossil Hall opened in 1911 and was partially renovated a few times over the next century but had never undergone a remastering that integrated the science and technology from all that time. So, the exhibit closed in 2014 and now here we are in 2019 with an unforgettable summer for dinosaur and museum lovers. As one team member put it, this new exhibit shows how all life is connected. 

The old exhibit had the dinos mainly standing alone, but in this exhibit, they were interacting with us and each other. They are fighting to the death and hanging over to look at us as we look at them. There are versatile interactives from high-tech computer games to closer looks at 3-D scans of skeleton heads, to automatons, to bronze statues you can get up close and personal with. Though really, everything can be considered personal in this exhibit, because the message is clear as one travels from deep in time to our future that though humans weren’t there to save the dinosaurs, we are here now to save the Earth from ourselves. 

Recently, I got to sit in on an early stage exhibit planning meeting. There were basic concept designs on the screen to show where the large artifacts would go. The team consisted of curators, an educator, an editor/writer, a project manager, a designer, and a consultant for discussing the experiential side of the narrative at hand. They spent an hour trying to nail down the Big Idea and major outcomes as personalities clashed. I was reminded how much goes into making an exhibit. Also, getting to listen to a museum “outsider” in the consultant was interesting because I finally understood that I am now an insider—I’m understanding more everyday what goes into running a museum, and that is great, but it does take away the option of a simple jaunt through an exhibit when I am focused on the application of museum studies.

I will have to walk back through Deep Time with an outsider, so to speak, because their mindset is “inside” all the fun. I want to give huge congratulations to the Deep Time exhibit planning team for bringing some magic back to the museum, the National Mall, and millions of kids of all ages.

The Politics of Seeing

A Sign of the Times by Dorothea Lange, 1934

Hopefully summer time is going swimmingly for everyone, whether you’re in internships, jobs, or are relaxing. For museum-goers, popping into an exhibit or two (or thirty) during the dog days is a favorite past-time. And that’s exactly how I kicked off my summer, by visiting the Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeingexhibition in Nashville at the Frist Art Museum.

The difference from last summer to this one is that I have a year of museum studies under my belt, and now I am looking at exhibits with a critical (albeit, novice) eye. Here is my shameless plug and a challengeto anyone reading: send in an exhibit critique this summer for a guest spot on the blog. We would love to hear from places around Boston and beyond—for the nomads. I personally would love to read more about and experience more exhibits that show museums care about engaging all walks of life.

So, rewinding, Dorothea Lange… who is she? She’s a popular photographer from the 20thcentury who used her camera as a tool for justice. She wanted to expose inequalities in regard to race and gender, to address issues around the Great Depression and migrant workers, and to demonstrate the decline of the rural communities and environments. These topics are not unfamiliar to us today, if you will excuse the double negative.

Dorothea Lange

I’ll be frank—I am not a photography fan. I can get down with a selfie or a scenic vista, but my world isn’t transformed by many pictures. I don’t know if it was my schooling coming in handy or maturation on my part, but I appreciated this exhibit for what it was trying to do, to give its audience a lesson on a compelling woman in history who visually captured the lives of those who would have been lost to time and to subtly make a point about how the world hasn’t changed in many ways.

Like many reinvented museum exhibitions today, this exhibit was clearly standing up for something. It wasn’t shying away from pointing out the injustices of this country. The major critique I would give is that it didn’t necessarily give an answer on how to change the oppression of minorities or the neglect of the poverty-stricken in this modern age. However, it does have a charming way of showing how photographs can be edited by the owner to represent the message the owner wants, rather than revealing the whole, complex truth. 

We should care about that visitor connection for so many reasons, but I will start with a basic one: many people for centuries haven’t seen “their story” in a museum and that’s fortunately changing. This exhibit was giving a low down on some of the rundown minorities of the past, but it wasn’t as accessible as it could’ve been due to entrance fees. Go away from this article today thinking about how museums can become more connected with the unconventional museum goer. (On a personal note, feel free to drop a line about how to spice up photography exhibits.)

From Monument to Memorial: A Symposium Review

“We can’t change the past but we can change history.” -Dr. Kymberly Pinder

On Friday, March 29th, I attended Tufts University’s one-day symposium, “From Monument to Memorial: Space, Commemoration, and Representation in America Now.” Organized by the Department of Art and Art History, the symposium invited audiences to consider the role of public civic art in America and its current impact in our present political climate. Discussions on history, heritage, memory, and legacy were the undercurrents of each presentation.

Before the first panel began, Tufts University Art Gallery Director Dina Deitsch discussed the symposium organizers’ deliberate choice to host the event in Tufts’ Alumnae Lounge, a rather contentious space on campus due to the nature of its monumental murals. Commissioned in 1955, the mural’s east wall depicts the historical founding of Tufts on Walnut Hill, while the west wall shows Tufts students, faculty, and deans in an attempt to provide a “snapshot of student life” in the 1950s. Although there are at least fifty individuals painted between the two walls, almost all of the figures are white, Protestant men (except for a few white women). In fact, the only reference to Medford’s diverse population is a small image of the Isaac Royall Slave House, and the artists completely ignore the fact that Walnut Hill is a site of spiritual significance for the Mystic people.

The Alumnae Lounge murals do not portray the diversity of Tufts University, both past and present. (Stay tuned on updates concerning the murals; there is currently a working group determining how best to make the space more inclusionary. An announcement about the murals’ changes to come will be made in the next few months, according to Deitsch.) Considering the ongoing debates concerning the Alumnae Lounge, the space served as a fitting backdrop for the day’s discussants, with Deitsch’s speech further setting the tone for the issues at heart of each panel.

The morning session, “Local Histories/Contested Spaces,” was comprised of four panelists: Danielle Abrams, Professor of the Practice in Performance at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts; Kerri Greenidge, Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts; Diana Martinez, Director of Architectural Studies at Tufts; and Kymberly Pinder, Provost of Massachusetts College of Art.

Each panelist discussed a controversial site, monument, or public art project and the importance of re-contextualizing it in its proper narrative. For instance, Danielle Abrams talked about her research concerning the segregated Lincoln Beach, an amusement park that was open from 1939-1964 in New Orleans. Today, Lincoln Beach is in ruins, and the nearby “whites only” Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park is often more referenced in the archives. Abrams is working to uncover these archives and prevent the complete erasure of Lincoln Beach from memory by collaborating with the last living generation of individuals who used to frequent the park and can speak to their experiences of segregation.

After the morning panel session, symposium participants and audience members had the opportunity to go on a two-hour guided bus tour led by Kendra Field and Kerri Greenidge of Tufts’ African American Trail Project. The Trail Project is a collaborative effort among students, scholars, and community members, intended to interrogate Massachusetts’ white history. With an aim of placing greater Boston historical monuments in their proper context – that is a narrative that also includes the memory and experiences of “historic African American, Black Native, and diasporic communities,” the Project is bringing to light history that has long been negated. The sites on the tour span five centuries and five neighborhoods of greater Boston, including Somerville/Medford, Beacon Hill, Roxbury, and Mattapan. Some examples of tour stops include the Dorchester North Burial Ground, Bunker Hill Monument, Royall House and Slave Quarters, W.E.B. Du Bois House, the Charles Street Meeting House, and Marsh Chapel. Sites continue to be added to the growing list, and members of the public are welcome to suggest or edit any site.

Mabel O. Wilson, Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, led the keynote address, “Memory/Race/Nation: The Politics of Modern Memorials,” in which she discussed the events of the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and the University of Virginia’s counter-protesters who shrouded their campus’ statues of Confederate figures in response. While traditionally University of Virginia’s campus tours spoke of Thomas Jefferson’s founding of the school and his legacy, now, thanks in part to increased student pressure, UVA tours highlight a narrative that was silenced for so long, one that acknowledges the approximately six hundred slaves that worked for Jefferson during his lifetime. Furthermore, a coalition of students and staff are “connecting the dots that have been missing,” with a forthcoming Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, a planned campus monument in the shape of a broken slave shackle, on which the names of 660 individuals are engraved along a timeline in a shallow pool of water in “an effort to humanize the unknown.”

As the symposium drew to a close, panelists left the audience with a series of questions to consider. How do we represent highly personal histories, and who do we represent in telling said narratives? How can we reconsider commemoration in light of recent violent events such as the Unite the Right rally in 2017? When should we preserve history, if at all, and what should we do with contentious spaces or monuments? For a room filled with museum professionals, artists, professors, trailblazers, and graduate students, these are timely questions for everyone to think about in our ongoing work of reframing histories.

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