With climate change as a constant impending threat, historic sites must consider their future sustainability with regards to the environment. Sea levels are rising, and many historic sites are located close to harbors and ports, which used to be the economic centers of many towns. However, this puts them in the prime position to be damaged by the environment. While the historic house field is very aware of this problem, it is something that requires continuous attention.Personally, this issue has been on my mind because I am interning at the Nantucket Historical Association this summer, and this problem is something that the entire island will face in the next several hundred years. However, some historic sites have come up with creative solutions to combat the sea level rise, as well as other natural issues.
The Sankaty lighthouse on Nantucket was moved inland in 2007 because of eroding shorelines and a terrible storm. Mounted on rails, the entire lighthouse was pushed farther inland in one piece to preserve it for longer. While this solution saves the lighthouse for now, it is not a permanent solution to the problem, and it will probably need to be moved again in the future.
Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois experiences flooding that has damaged many different parts of the property, including textiles and flooring. The National Trust owns the house, and they are very open on their website about the different methods that they considered when trying to redirect the flood water. In conjunction with Robert Silman Associates, they explored five different options before finally choosing a system that will raise the house up temporarily when the area floods, and then the house can be returned to its original state afterwards. This option preserves both the architect’s vision and the physical house.
Many houses in Newport, RI are experiencing the same issues of coastline erosion, including the Christopher Townsend House that the Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF) owns. A recent New York Times article highlighted some possible ways to adapt historic houses for the future. The Townsend House currently employs a method of “dry-proofing,” which involves sandbags to block flooding from the house as well as a pump to keep water from standing in the basement. Some other suggestions for the house include replumbing houses so the water diverts underneath the house and is drained elsewhere, a cistern under the house to collect the water, or a way of floating the house using guide posts.
We may not be able to change what has already happened to our planet, but we can at least be as prepared as possible to try to adapt with these environmental hazards, as well as advocate for conservation and environmentally sustainable practices. Many historic sites are organizing conferences and trying to set an example of innovative planning while also maintaining the integrity of their sites.
In May, I took a trip to China to visit a friend who is working as an English teacher in the city of Xiangtan. While I was there, I wanted to visit as many museums as possible to see if there was a cultural difference. Of course, I could only visit museums that were near the city, but I felt that I left with some new inspirations and understandings of the way we run our museums in this country. My few key takeaways:
Technology was everywhere! From the moment we walked in the door at the Xiangtan museum, we were surrounded by technology, but it didn’t feel obtrusive. Instead, it was used to bring the visitor closer to the objects. The picture to the right shows the projection of a statue of a pig that was on display in one of the museum’s cases. The projection of the statue allows the visitor to see all sides of the object because there were designs that were hidden in the case display. This technique worked particularly well for vases or objects that need to be displayed in-the-round. In fact, they had a section dedicated exclusively to pottery with the technological ability using QR codes to bring up digital recreations of vases and pottery that matched some pottery shards that were on display (see picture below). Using technology to put the objects in a greater context was an excellent way to engage visitors, who otherwise might have passed over this section of fragmented pottery.
This history was so much older than I expected. While in the US, we have Native American art and artifacts, which I have seen dating back as far as 12,000 years old, it was a totally new experience to see some pieces in the Xiangtan museum that could be dated as far back as 300,000 years ago! This was not something that I had thought in-depth about prior to visiting. The artifacts that have survived this long are mostly fragments of stone tools, and the technology that the museum incorporated allowed the visitor to feel like they could actually interact with the object because you could pull it up on the touchscreen kiosks to look more closely at them.
Less programming – the museums that we visited had less programming and more focus on history and the objects in the collection. In the United States, museums often attract people based on their programming, which is designed around their objects and the stories that the museum is trying to tell. None of the Xiangtan museums that I visited had programming to supplement their exhibits.
While I cannot speak for the culture of museums in other parts of the country, I had an excellent time visiting the ones in Xiangtan and seeing new ways to integrate technology into the experience. Even though I personally prefer our model of involving community programming, I found it compelling that the objects were such a focus in the museum experience.
This week the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announced that they will be closing their doors for four months later this year to complete their ongoing renovation and completely rehang their collection. When the museum reopens in the fall, they will rotate their collection more frequently, juxtapose works in different mediums, and, crucially, include more works that emphasize the contributions of women, people of color, and non-European artists to modern and contemporary art. They will also partner with the Studio Museum in Harlem, an American art museum that focuses on African American artists, to display their collection while that museum is being renovated.
This is a massive and much needed undertaking. Women and people of color have historically been included in MoMA’s exhibits in marginal ways. A 2015 Artnet survey of solo exhibitions from 2007-2014 at major American art museums found that only 20% of MoMA’s shows featured women artists. Not that these types of exclusion are limited to MoMA. Artnet recently looked at exhibitions of work by black artists at 30 major museums from 2008 to 2018 and found that they accounted for a mere 7.6 percent. So full-throated attempts to remedy these biases and gaps are welcomed. But not every museum can afford to close for months to revamp their space or aggressively collect work from marginalized artists. What can workers at those institutions do?
I recently attended a workshop on Social Justice and Museums run by Nicole Claris, Manager of School Programs at the MFA, Boston, and Sara Egan, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The workshop was put on by the Young Emerging Professionals group of the New England Museum Association. Its focus was on how to marshal resources to create exhibits, programming, and other experiences that surface marginalized lives and multiple points of view. Examples of real life successes were shared, like revamping a volunteer training program to give docents the knowledge and tools they needed to tell inclusive and truthful stories. Then step by step instructions for how to apply these intentions to your institution were shared:
The work begins with you. Take a moment to check with yourself and see if you are able to take feedback about your work. It is ok to make mistakes, but we also have to be able to learn from them. This is how we build more inclusive experiences that share multiple perspectives.
Define your goals and audience. What tools and objects do you already have in your institution? Perhaps it is a piece of art featuring a person of color. Are you telling that story? Maybe your historical institution starts its narrative when Europeans came on the scene. Can you surface the indigenous story as well?
Get support. Determine how the actions you want to take relate to your institutional values and priorities. Identify people in your institution that could be allies. Build an external network of people who can help you do this work – who is doing this work that you can point to as a leader? What community organizations can you build relationships with to help your organization change? Who can help you with your blind spots and keep you honest?
Use your collection! Know what you have, through and through. Take opportunities to research objects that you think might have another perspective to share.
Picture success. What will change look like in your institution? Remember that incremental change is better than no change at all.
We don’t all work at MoMA, but we can all make changes that tell wider, more robust stories about art, history, science, and the world. Do you have resources for doing this sort of work? Share in the comments!