Tuesday, November 27, 2012

American Stories at the National Museum of American History

The following is an edited excerpt from a longer exhibition review I wrote a couple of weeks ago.  I thought it fit well with some of the recent themes of the blog, so I'm posting it here.  It reflects on the question, how can history museums balance the telling of an easily understandable satisfying narrative with being true to the reality of ambiguous, unpleasant history? 

American Stories fills just one wide room, so a visitor can scan over the entire display from anywhere within it.  The exhibit is intimate.  The deep purple walls and the soft lighting serve both to protect the light-sensitive artifacts and to encourage the visitor to draw up close to the display cases.  Soft music, folk songs, plays in the background.  When entering the exhibit starting on the right, the objects are arranged roughly chronologically, divided into five defining eras in American history.  Both the chronological organization and the disproportionately high percentage of its hundred or so objects that are new scientific inventions, suggest a national story of improvement, of development.  Within each chronological era, the organization of objects into their display cases, and the supporting materials, particularly the collection of varied American faces pictured on the walls, tell the exhibition’s most important national narrative: pride in diversity. 

Antislavery Potholder, from American Stories: 1801-1870, Expansion and Reform
Each display case is organized to cover a single theme.  For example, in the “Expansion and Reform Era: 1801-1870”, a case dealing with the theme of slavery contains three objects: a stoneware jar made by slave David Drake in 1862, an anonymous embroidered potholder with abolitionist embroidery from an unknown date, and a 1833 slave ship manifest from Alexandria, Virginia.  These three items are well chosen to bring three very different voices into dialog on the topic of slavery.  The manifest is the object closest to what a visitor might expect to see in a history of American slavery, and the two other objects add nuance to the narrative: the potholder by highlighting the important role of women in the abolitionist movement, and the stoneware jar by giving the viewer an unexpected glimpse of a slave who was also a potter, whose name and whose art, against all odds, has come down to us through history.  The whole case strikes a balance: like a table on three legs, the story of slavery in America rests equally on the three different objects, and the three different standpoints they represent.  The slavery case is emblematic of the overall structure of the exhibition, which highlights diversity and equilibrium in most of the other cases.  Two other examples: in the America before the Revolutionary War case, Plymouth Rock, that quintessential icon of Euro-American founding mythology, looks across at a string of Wampum beads, evidence that a Native American culture and economy existed before the arrival of the Pilgrims.  In the sports case, the baseball signed by Babe Ruth is balanced by the inclusion of a ball used in 1930 by Sam Streeter, star pitcher of the Negro leagues.  Taken together, these balanced cases seem to say: America is all these perspectives, black, white, man, woman, Indian, European, living together. 

Baseball signed by Babe Ruth, from American Stories: 1900-1945 Emergence of Modern America
A national narrative emphasizing diversity is undoubtedly better than one presenting a narrow white-male perspective.  Unfortunately, by setting objects in such harmoniously balanced proportions, the exhibit minimizes any sense of conflict.  Slavery should be one of the most horrible, discomforting topics to encounter in a museum, yet the balanced happy ending to the story –that the slave gets equal space in the exhibit case, equal treatment with the slave owner, mitigates the sense of discomfort the theme should evoke.  This is not to suggest that the slave should not get a great deal of space in an exhibit that deals with slavery, just that the perfect balance of the exhibition should be shaken up in some way if the exhibit is to communicate any sense of struggle.  The explanatory labels and the words on the introductory banners throughout the exhibit do not shake up the balance; they reiterate the messages of the objects, editing out conflict under a picture of unity.  The banner introducing the first section of the exhibit, “Forming a New Nation: 1776-1801” proclaims, “America’s diverse populations –native peoples, Europeans and Africans– interacted to create a hybrid new world” (emphasis added).  The term “interacted” is so vague and diplomatic that it seems grossly insufficient to describe the devastating conflict, hardship and oppression that dominated the “interactions” between “native peoples, Europeans and Africans”.  A second example: the text explaining the sample of Plutonium-239 reads mostly as a celebratory recounting of successful government sponsorship of scientific advancement.  Only in a far smaller font, in a corner of the label, is there any mention that this “scientific advancement” was in fact part of the creation of two atomic bombs that the US dropped on Japan, killing millions and bringing up dark questions about morality which remain unanswered to this day.  The shortcomings evident in these two examples of text from the exhibit highlight a real challenge.  Museum texts, especially in the NMAH, geared toward family fun rather than high academic inquiry, are most effective at conveying a message to the visitor when they are short. So how can the native peoples, Europeans, and Africans do anything more than “interact”, a single, efficient word that technically covers the whole slew of complex of ways they came together? And how can a curator hope to do justice to the moral complexity of dropping the atom bomb when whole books still cannot fully cover the issue –better perhaps to hardly open up that story at all.  It is evident that there is a friction between the goal of creating an inviting space for families to visit, and the goal of addressing the reality of conflict.  

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Three little things I’ve learned about museums and curating in these past few months

1. Most museums have shifted their philosophies from collections-centered to visitor-centered.  
            A focus on collections –protecting, archiving and researching about art works that museums own and acquire– will always be an essential part of what sets museums apart from other institutions of learning and public engagement.  The shift toward a visitor-centered philosophy however means that curators are not assuming that what they display will automatically engage their audience.  They are consulting with educators, reflecting deeply on who makes up their audience and on how they might expand it, how they might encourage new visitors, previously hesitant to come to museums.  Curators are experimenting with different participatory activities, tools and technologies.  Sometimes these attempts fall short, but that’s okay if we think of museums as places to experiment. 

The Luce Foundation Center, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is cutting-edge in its experimentation with new types of visitor engagement

2. Ideas for an exhibition might come from what the museum already has in its permanent collection, or they might come from an important story that the curator wants to tell.  Both of these exhibition types have their own challenges. 
            I learned a number of times about the complexity of the process when a curator brings together works from many places, hoping to tell a particular thematic story.  Each work has to be tracked down; then the curator has to convince the owner to lend, (hopefully without too many stipulations about how the work might be displayed that inhibit the curator’s creative vision).  Sometimes a conservator will assess that in fact, the artwork should not be moved, or the lender will change his mind, and the curator depending on that work of art will have to rearrange her whole exhibition.  On the other hand, with a collections based exhibit, curators have to figure out how they will overcome gaps in their collection. Collections are rarely even and smoothly built, they contain too much of some themes, and too little of others. 
3. Running a museum means balancing often conflicting priorities: the wants of visitors, museum staff, trustees, artists being displayed, and the museum founders.
            I have been particularly struck, in my learning these past few months, by how many curator choices are based on the original instructions of the founder.  When my class visited the Freer Gallery, the curator there talked to us of the challenge of keeping the Freer relevant and interesting while not breaking the stipulation Mr. Freer left in his will that none of the works in his original collection ever be lent out of the museum to other exhibitions, and that no new works of American art be purchased and added to his collection, ever.  At first, these struck me as eccentric and frustrating limitations.  As I thought about it, however, I realized that by honoring the instructions of a founder to the best of their abilities, curators preserve a link between a museum and its past that adds another layer to its meaning.  Each artwork in the museum is related to its own past –when, how, why, and by whom it was originally made–, and the museum as a whole is like a work of art connected to its founder and its history. 
The Freer Gallery

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A "small, gentle disturbance" at the National Portrait Gallery

My Museum History and Theory class met today with Frank Goodyear, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, who talked to us about how the NPG works to recognize and rectify the gaps in its collection, and put on exhibits informed by feminism. Feminist involvement in museums has evolved over the past few decades, but it still has a really important role to play, as museums struggle to reinterpret Art History critically, acknowledge the holes and the flaws of the discipline, and build it into something stronger, more open, and more in line with the values of a diverse world.  

The National Portrait Gallery strattles the dividing line between art museum and history museum.  Its mission is to display paintings and sculpture and (since the late 1970s) photos and works on paper depicting people who have made a “transcending impact” on American History.  The exhibition design and labeling choices at NPG emphasize the social and historical impact of the people whose portraits are presented, an emphasis that highlights its role as a history museum.  However, as Goodyear explained to us in his talk, the museum is also interested in portraiture as an art form.  I found it particularly interesting that they acquire only portraits where the artist engaged at some point in time with the real person they represent in their artwork (as opposed to painting a historical figure a century after he died).  

Here is in essence the big challenge in curating at the National Portrait Gallery:  NPG wants to present exhibits that act (in Goodyear’s words) as a “mirror to the nation”.  Unfortunately, until recently, portraits of women were rare –even the acknowledgement of women who made ‘transcending impact’ on American society was rare.  Compounding matters, in the past, biases in collecting practices meant that curators did not have particular interest in accessioning portraits of women into the museum. Even if today the museum is keen to be inclusive and open in its definition of America, it is limited by the channels dug out by its collecting history.   The museum collects portraits of more modern and contemporary women, but it can do little to remedy its lack of women portraits from the earliest centuries of American History. 

The museum has chosen to try to tell a story of 18th century American women, and point out to the public of the challenge of doing this with its limited collection, by, what Goodyear called a “small, gentle disturbance” to American Origins, one of its permanent exhibits.  This “small, gentle disturbance” is certainly small; it consists of one alcove within the large, multi-room main exhibit, with four paintings, two prints, one clay cast, one book illustration, and the words “A Will of Their Own” printed on a sign over the archway.  That does not seem like very much to tell the story of American Women in the 18th century, tucked among the vast exhibition featuring men.  Yet, within the limits it had to work with, the NPG does a respectable job of putting together a thought-provoking display. 

The centerpiece of the group of works, a portrait by John Singleton Copley of Judith Sargent Murray, early activist for education for women, and first woman in America to publish a book, is not part of the collection, but on loan from a private foundation.  They have hung this beautiful work of art in one of the most prominent places of the entire museum; it is visible from the very first moment the visitor heads to the American Origins exhibit, acting as the focal point of the end of the long corridor, drawing the visitor in.  The museum is committing an important act of historic re-interpretation by placing Sargent Murray’s portrait here, and through this placement acknowledging her utmost importance to American history. 

I also think it was a wise choice for the museum, in this case, to group all these women together, even if it seems to further enforce their Otherness.  With only eight works of art, they would disappear if spread evenly among the portraits of men.  Grouped together, the museum can call attention to the problem of 18th century subordination of women, and lack of portraiture, and it does this explicitly in the wall text.

One of my classmates asked Goodyear why the display showed only women in public roles; wouldn’t they have more portraits to choose from if they showed women fulfilling roles as mothers or daughters or wives?  The curators had discussed this question, Goodyear answered, and decided that the NPG always displayed important, exceptional public figures, so mothers, daughters and wives were not roles they wanted to focus on.  His answer, to me, highlights another, lingering problem of values that needs a feminist re-interpretation: isn’t the insistence that private, domestic roles aren’t important to telling history another way that women have been marginalized?

Sunday, November 4, 2012


Last week, the Washington Post featured an article about knitting.  Although the article’s immediate motivation was a reflection on keeping oneself content and busy while staying inside waiting out Hurricane Sandy, the article ended up reflecting on when knitting is a creative act, and a work of art, and when it is not.  In the end, the article argued that there are many artists who use yarn as their medium to create art, but there are thousands more, the vast majority of hobby-knitters, who are following patterns written by others in a way that is rote, not creative, even as they are creating a product: a hat, scarf or sweater. 

I’m a knitter myself, so I was very excited to read this article.  Any mainstream attention we knitters can get is generally a good thing, but still, I wondered about the article’s conclusions, and the strict hierarchy of inventor over follower. 

As I was mulling over this article, I found an announcement in my email inbox from the National Museum of Women in the Arts about the new exhibit that just opened there about fiber arts (High Fiber -Women to Watch 2012).  Although I have not yet had a chance to go, I am eager to see how their exhibit frames knitting.   My guess is that the framing will reflect the thesis of the Washington Post article.  I suspect they will show some beautiful knit pieces, but only pieces that focus on originality, only pieces that are one-of-a-kind.  And maybe, this is as it should be.

Nonetheless, I think the hierarchy of inventor over follower, the insistence on a narrow definition of art that doesn’t include the creation of someone who “merely” followed the directions of a pattern, might just be too simple.  I don’t think we should fear of diluting the definition of art by making it too broad.  This fear stops us from celebrating more humble works of creation.  Some things are zero-sum games, but art can be inclusive without loosing its power.  No, I’m not saying art museums should start accessioning amateur knit baby hats, but that we recognize an alternative narrative of art and thus of society.  This alternative narrative is one less focused on the individual genius, and more on the truth of group works, and team efforts.  It is focused less on an isolated artist-creator, and more on people who make creating an embedded part of larger lives.  It values the creations of women, of minorities, of amateurs.  It values art and creation in the world all around us, and not just that which has made it into the museum institution.  This alternative narrative does not have to replace our narrative of great original art created by individual geniuses, but can exist next to this traditional narrative, like two books on a shelf.    

With that thought, I’ll leave you with some pictures of this alternative narrative in action: Yarnbombing.  And I’ll get back to my own knitting.  
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