museums

Expertise - What's in a name?

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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.

Branding Historical Societies

FreeImages.com/Carlos Sillero

FreeImages.com/Carlos Sillero

I talk with a lot of people about historical societies.  Sometimes, I cringe when I hear how their own members refer to them or shorten their names.  These shortcuts only ever make the organizations seem exclusive and old-fashioned, two qualities that most historical societies, especially on the local level, no longer possess.

There’s a bit of a marketing problem in terms of what historical societies are, why they were formed, and why people should join them in 2016. 

Historical societies preserve aspects of the past.  Local historical societies might preserve a past that a current iteration of a town or city might hope to shed.  For example, they might preserve a farm near an area that values building a suburban community.

Historical societies might have originated in Progressive Era (1890s to 1920s) notions of betterment—betterment often advocated in judgment of those who failed to meet standards and in conjunction with social platforms like temperance.  (Think of this like birth control and Planned Parenthood—many modern women love and use these resources, but they came out of Margaret Sanger’s questionable positions on eugenics.)

Historical societies often continued after their foundings at the behest of wealthy benefactors.  Depending on the community and the niche that the historical society fills, there may still be a “big man on campus” aspect to being in charge of such an organization.  Big fish, little pond, and so on.

Historical societies are often so heavily allied to the history of a small place in a particular era that they draw in members who have settled their for life and push away members who might not be so sure that place is the one for them (though perhaps the historical society could convince them so!). 

One of the problems that I have in talking to historical societies is that, when I go into their museums and talk to the people who are so tremendously passionate about their local history, I fall just a little bit in love with the place and walk through in my head all the considerations for what it might be like to live there.  I suspect I am not alone in this, though I may be alone in admitting it.  I don’t need to believe the branding to believe that the organization plays a vital role in a community—but the branding needs to evolve to attract people who need to be sold on that vitality.  And it needs to do that without alienating the passionate people who have kept these organizations going for many years of meetings, events, and community activism.