museums

Chicago Case Study: Dismantling the Historic House Museum?

Have you ever been to a Historic House Museum (HHM) where it wasn’t at all important to know who lived in the house before it became a museum?  It seems almost antithetical to the concept—historic house museums have, traditionally, been set up to honor the people who lived in them, which often means rich, white men. It’s only recently that historic houses have embraced new philosophies on what they embody and display. When I went to Chicago this past weekend, I searched for historic sites or history museums that I hadn’t visited before. We did the obvious things, the Art Institute (Manet show!) and the Field Museum (boyfriend’s choice), but there was another museum that caught my eye: the Richard H. Driehaus Museum. It appeared to be a historic house, clearly a beautiful Gilded Age site. I saw that they had a Yinka Shonibare, CBE installation in their rooms. Sold!

The foyer of the Driehaus Museum. (My photo.)

The foyer of the Driehaus Museum. (My photo.)

We arrived at the Driehaus Museum in the middle of a rainstorm, and the staff ushered us back to the ticket counter. There, they had a small display about the people who had originally built and owned the house. Samuel Nickerson, first a liquor merchant and then a bank president, had built the house between 1879 and 1883 and spared no expense. He and his wife were art collectors, using the house as a gallery. When he died, the art collection went to the Art Institute, and after another private owner, a banker as well, the house was sold to the American College of Surgeons. That 1919 sale was an act of historic preservation, and then, in a second act of historic preservation, the house was sold to a philanthropist and collector named Richard Driehaus in 2013. Consequently, this museum is not a traditional HHM, but rather a showpiece of Driehaus’s dedicated restoration, a composite of the family histories and something else as well.  It has been open for only about 11 years.

Before heading into the restored museum spaces, I had a moment of fear after reading about the building’s history—where’s the historical authenticity if a house is restored not to its original appearance, but to some in-between ideal of a funder? How does that affect the mission of the museum? Does presenting a restoration as thoroughly historic reflect a broader attitude toward representing “the way things were” in the house’s original time period. One particular differentiation from the original appearance of the house would be the prevalence of Tiffany light fixtures, apparently a focus of Mr. Driehaus’s collecting. However, the most exquisite Tiffany works were produced after Mr. Nickerson had died.

Yet it turns out that perhaps this model of HHM can be liberating. The museum did have notes about how Mr. and Mrs. Nickerson originally used the rooms.  They also had fairly precise and careful indications, much more in the way of passive interpretation than I’ve seen at other HHMs, of what was original and what was restored. They also clearly felt free to comment on the institutions that gave way to the ability to create such a gem of a house in a city that has always been deeply stratified by class.  The signs that discussed the restoration made clear that one difficulty had been cleaning the Berea sandstone exterior of the house; a century of industrial smog had to be carefully removed to find the underlying color.

However, they mixed that context with a powerful critique of how such institutions came to be, simply by allowing the contemporary to mix productively with the historic. Currently, the Driehaus Museum is playing host to an exhibit called A Tale of Today: Yinka Shonibare CBE.  I’ve been fascinated by Shonibare’s work for a long time; I once wrote a paper that tried to compare his method of quoting art history to Edgar Degas’s. Shonibare, a British-Nigerian artist, borrows familiar tropes, plots, and visual configurations to disrupt the history of art from the inside out. Placing this exhibition in this kind of museum suggests that, by abandoning the strictures of one historic period, more thematic analyses are possible.

An excellent example of the clash between Shonibare and the traditional model of an HHM is Party Time: Reimagine America (2009), originally produced for the Newark Museum and on display here in the Nickersons’ dining room.

Party Time: Reimagine America  (2009) installed in the Driehaus Museum. (My photo.)

Party Time: Reimagine America (2009) installed in the Driehaus Museum. (My photo.)

The figures wear Dutch wax clothing, a critical signifier of colonialism in Shonibare’s visual language—the cloth, usually associated with Africa and imported into African markets, was actually made in the Netherlands. In Shonibare’s hands, it calls a viewer to consider who is really responsible for the societies that we inhabit. Party Time shows a dinner table full of people whose actions, like feet on the table, betray the exclusive and elite activities the circumstances are supposed to recall. The headless mannequins, nearly disembodied suits of clothes, also recall the ghosts of the people who once lived in the house, who likely had servants, and whose actions reified divisions of social class, race, and gender.

The Driehaus Museum was my most pleasant surprise of this trip to Chicago, the exact opposite of that moment of fear that had me rethinking all of my choices to go there.  While I have been wary of contemporary art installations in historic settings in the past, the Shonibare exhibit enriched the experience of being in the museum. It gave me so much more than if the house had simply been full of the Nickerson furnishings or a museum to the surgeons who called it their professional home for a century, even if I would have happily gone to either. It might not be rocket science, or even the interventions spelled out in Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, but other museums could certainly learn from being so open to new ideas.

Expertise - What's in a name?

Hello.jpg

This past Saturday, I co-presented a session on how local history organizations can use social media, specifically Twitter. This is a topic that I’ve written and presented on in the past, and it’s a topic that I feel very strongly about. Am I an expert in it? That depends. Most of my marketing training has been informal, either in the very literal “on-the-job” sense or from taking online courses. However, it’s taken me a long time to realize that being an expert isn’t necessarily about knowing the most about a particular subject.

I understand the goals of using social media and generally know how to read the metrics that each platform makes available, but that’s not the most important skill I bring to the table. I know what has worked for me in my past experience managing social media accounts for organizations, and I know what I wish I had done better. I know that a lot of being good at social media management is doing the work—being able to put in the time to build a rapport with your followers and giving those followers what they want while also divining ways to bring in new followers.

For an audience composed of representatives from local history organizations, I’m an expert because I know what that audience needs. They don’t need to know the specific metrics to watch or to hone the skills that a marketing professional would have practiced through formal education, not yet anyway. What they need is to be convinced that adopting social media management practices is worth their time and that the learning curve to basic posting and engaging isn’t too steep for them to start.

So when I focus on talking about Twitter, I talk about the unique engagement the platform can deliver. Yes, there might be a third as many people on Twitter as there are on Facebook, but that group of people engages with intensity and expertise—both traits that can work in an organization’s favor, if they’re careful. I focus on the immediacy of Twitter. Organizations desperate for a specific answer to a conservation question or eager to catch the eye of their local state representative for a capital funding campaign can simply just tweet at those people, and they may very well receive an answer to their question or a special visitor at their event.

Much has been written about “imposter syndrome,” especially for people who used to be in academia, and how the feeling that you’re not good enough to do something can affect your ability to do good in your field. I think that also applies when you’re thinking about building a business or selling your skills for a job interview.  You ask yourself, “am I really good enough, and do I really have enough experience, to do this particular task professionally? Can I really ask people to pay me for this work?” I think you have to find a way to make the answer yes, and I struggle less and less with those questions as I move further and further away from my time in academia. When I was walking out of the meeting on Saturday, a woman called me the “Twitter queen,” thanked me for my insight, and wished me a safe drive home. I’ll take it.

So you wanna be a superheroine AND a museum curator...

Wonder Woman walking into the Louvre

So Wonder Woman, breaker of box office records, fortifier of women's hearts, is a curator at the Louvre.

At first, as Diana Prince walked through the courtyard of the Musée du Louvre, I thought they might just be setting up one of the popular "smash the fancy landmark" action sequences, or perhaps that someone had screwed up and not realized that I. M. Pei's pyramids did not exist during the World War I-era in which the bulk of the movie is set.  

But then you see Diana at her desk, surrounded by glass cases full of beautiful artifacts - then only seemingly similar to Wonder Woman's Amazonian tools - that befit the collection of the world's greatest museum.  And the purpose of showing her in the present is the delivery of a photograph of her and her friends during World War I that Bruce Wayne has unearthed for her safe-keeping, which is a perfectly sensible plot point to stage in a museum.

I said, after I left the movie on Sunday, that Wonder Woman may be the best conventional superhero movie I've ever seen, and I stand by that.  Like most other female viewers, seeing a woman superhero on screen provoked a cocktail of emotions.  Yet her "day job" in the present-day, which I assume will continue on for the Justice League movies set in the present, bothers me for two reasons.  

First, it perpetuates the idea that art history is an unattainable, luxury discipline and that a career based in its study is available only to those with special circumstances and skills.  (What I wouldn't give to bring Hestia's Lasso of Truth to an academic conference here or there.)

Second, you might actually need to be Wonder Woman to become a curator of ancient artifacts at the Louvre.  I don't mean this to contradict my first point - I mean simply that there's no better person to curate a collection of Amazon warrior artifacts than someone who has actually used them.  There's also little room in that model for an enthusiast of Amazon warrior artifacts to learn enough and argue effectively enough to gain equivalent prestige.

I wonder if Diana Prince will still be a Louvre curator in future films and if it could play a bigger role in the story at any time.  I'm going to keep watching, but I hope her day job doesn't turn out to be just a flimsy character trait.

Art for Everyone? Not Without Explanatory Labels

I can’t stand art exhibitions that do not use explanatory wall labels.

There’s no point in mincing my words on this topic.  I spend most of my time these days at a history museum that does not have label texts because they have guided tours, but for the most part, there is little in the rooms of a historic house museum that would seem inscrutable to the average visitor.  The guide of that tour, then, embroiders stories over what the visitors see, adding color and making connections that can shape a museum experience into something memorable.  In this case, labels are not really necessary because the experience aims throughout to be immersive and participatory.

And yet, for all the talk in professional communities about museums needing to focus on providing participatory experiences, art museums still frequently put up exhibitions without label texts that include no more than the identifying information for the work. For contemporary art, where the works are often, officially, “Untitled,” this identifying information alone can be next to meaningless.  Without available programming that engages the themes of the exhibition, there is little to provide explanation of the messages of the works on display. When the works being exhibited draw on complex social histories, theories, and politics, which the viewer may or may not be familiar with prior to their visit, how can a person participate in the dialogues the works are meant to invoke? 

If there is no audio tour, handout, or extra program, an art exhibition without explanatory labels asks for viewers to be already “in the know” about the issues the works address, like walking through the door of an art museum certifies entry into a privileged community.  This is the very opposite of a participatory museum experience, and it undermines the role that art museums should play in our society.  This oversight is the kind of thing that enables the belief that Art History, as a discipline, is the province of the rich and entitled, a discipline superfluous to regular life. 

I have been guilty myself of thinking that providing further explanation of Art History and also specific artworks seemed like an unnecessary concession—that people should understand the necessity of studying Art History without me explaining to them why I believe in its importance.  I realize now that this reflexive reaction of mine functioned more like a defense mechanism against forcing myself to confront the question.  Why do I believe in the importance of studying Art History? 

Good artists do more than make pictures.  They take entire worldviews and funnel them into visual work that tells a story, makes a protest, experiments with media, or takes any one of many, many other actions.  Their work is often complicated, whether or not the assemblage of paint and materials in the museum seems complicated.  And sometimes, a viewer needs a few clues to guess what message the artist was trying to send.  When work concerns issues of race, class, or gender, a viewer may need much more than a few clues to avoid relying on stereotypes for understanding and growth.

I’m lucky to live somewhere where the art museum has immense community support and colossal amounts of funding to put behind its outreach programs.  Maybe my art museum can get away with not using explanatory labels in special exhibitions, but it still shouldn’t.  Getting people through the door can’t be enough when art museums and, yes, Art History are two of the greatest tools we have to convince people why they should trust in empathy, creativity, and education.

The Art History-Baseball Wars of 2016

Cleveland's Progressive Field through a Prisma filter, August 2016. 

Cleveland's Progressive Field through a Prisma filter, August 2016. 

A friend of mine recently said: "I had no idea that there was so much overlap in the Venn diagram of art history and baseball."    

This was her response to me sharing two pictures on Facebook, the first of many that would appear over the following days, that used images from the history of art to comment on the World Series.  One portrayed Cleveland Indians Manager (and arguable baseball genius) Terry Francona on his (in)famous scooter in the manner of Jacques-Louis David's ca. 1801 portrait Napoleon Crossing the Alps.  The other, posted on the Art Institute of Chicago's social media accounts transformed the Haussmannian Paris of Gustave Caillebotte's 1877 painting Paris Street, Rainy Day; the flâneur in front was made to sport a Cubs t-shirt while his female companion flies a World Series pennant.  Since then, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Cleveland Museum of Art, two of the best museums in the United States, have been photoshopping baseball logos and jokes into their most famous paintings and sharing them on Facebook, having nerdy fun with a sports rivalry carrying on just beyond their doors.  

For me, baseball and art history have long overlapped, even if it hasn't always been quite as deliberate as the examples outlined above.  I watched many an Indians game as a way to dissolve the stress of writing my dissertation, or listened to games online while begrudgingly spending weekends in the library.  I once proposed a summer course called "The Art of Athletics," throughout which I intended to talk about the literal visual artifacts of sports (like baseball cards), the architecture of stadiums (think "cathedrals" of baseball--like Wrigley Field), and also broader theoretical concepts like masculinity and spectacle through which we see and understand the actions occurring on fields of play.  (This plan was only thwarted by a well-timed research grant that enabled me to go to France instead.)  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has, of course, an extensive collection of baseball cards from the 1880s on; these priceless artifacts document the origins of the cards in consumerism, the progression of available and cost effective printing technologies, and the cultivation of superstars in the sport.  Where there is image-making, be in on paper and canvas or in the eyes of an adoring public, there is room for art history.

So what do these baseball-themed wars between our major midwestern art museums actually mean?  Maybe not much beyond the gratification of seeing the characters in these visual landmarks of vastly different eras and geographies (American GothicSunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte, Lotto's Portrait of a Man, and the portrait Nathaniel Olds) unite under the banner of baseball.  I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about baseball and why, even against threats from PEDs and accusations of racism within the sport, baseball still feels more magical than other sports with similar stature in the United States.  I think it probably has something to do with the fact that, for people who love the sport and without regard to who they may be in life, it pulls on the same heartstrings as paintings do for people who love paintings.  

As someone who loves both paintings and baseball, I can testify that the feelings are similar. Standing before Van Gogh's Starry Night over the Rhone (a sentimental, personal favorite of mine) evokes deep joy and calm in me, and an often elusive faith that there is beauty and hope somewhere in the world. This is the same feeling that occurs when it sets in that your closer has thrown that third strike for the third out to end, conclusively and victoriously, a game in which every factor was stacked against your team.  But the moment immediately after that pitch is for loudly cheering! ... and exhaling.