National Museum of Iceland

I am in Iceland for roughly 26 hours (of which at least 5 are taken up with the airport and getting to/from it). Luckily, the friend-of-a-friend who is letting me stay the night lives within walking distance of the National Museum of Iceland.

My path through the museum was somewhat random, as I was doding a school group which entered about the same time I did, but the overall layout of the two gallery floors was more or less chronological as well as thematic. Themes overlapped, but everything pre-1700 was on the second floor, and everything post was on the third (the ground being for the museum shop and cafe).

I was frustrated by some things, for example the fact that it was unclear whether labels were indiciating where an item was found or where it was made. On the other hand, I thought the museum found clever ways to deal with lighting and sound issues in an open floor plan gallery. In at least two instances – medieval textiles and 18th century drawings – items were kept in plexiglass topped drawers which the visitor could pull out, but which were weighted to slide back when let go. view of a small room-like structure within the museum galleryIn addition, particularly on the second floor, the museum used partitions and coloured plexiglass to create small rooms or spaces with motion-sensor lighting. One of these housed medieval embroideries, and another included not only ecclesiastical art but a soundtrack of latin chant music, which was contained by the walls of the ´room.´Along with vertical display panels and cases, these room-like spaces created discrete areas in the museum for each theme or era.

It´s a very nice museum, with a lovely cafe on the ground floor (with free wifi!). If you have a chance to visit, I recommend it.

(P.S. please forgive any odd spellings or punctuation. I´m writing on a European/Icelandic keyboard)

Quick thought: accessibility and angles

On Sunday I went to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum out at Dulles with my parents, a friend, and the friend’s two sons aged almost-5 and just-6. Due to recent knee problems, my dad opted to use a wheelchair for the day.  As a result, his eye level was roughly equal with the boys’. Dad ended up noticing signatures inside the wheel well of one plane, and other details that were blocked at the angle of a standing adult.

It occurred to me that it would be a good exercise for curators and exhibit designers to go through their exhibits in a wheelchair (or at least a rolling desk chair at its lowest height). This would allow them to see the space from the perspective of children and persons in wheelchairs, and might lead to some rethinking and redesigning. It might even be a chance to put ‘easter eggs’ at kids-eye-level!

The Donor Side

This past week I participated in the museum donation process from the other side – the donor side. My father was donating some of the papers of his father and grandfather to a military museum, and my sister and I joined him.

The initial meeting with members of the collections and research departments was relatively familiar to me, having witnessed it happening in my own department when I was at the historic house museum. They explained the process of accession – slightly different from what I was used to – and we talked about the content and history of the 2 trunks, display table, and assorted files and scrapbooks. They were very excited about some of the material, and sensitive to the fact that it was sort of hard for us to let it all go. They are, however, going to digitize everything, and we’ll get a pdf of the finding aid once it’s complete.

The best part of it all, however, wasn’t even on the original itenerary. Dad of course mentioned that I had just worked in a curatorial department, which led to some friendly colleague chat with the research guys. They suggested that, after visiting my great-grandfather’s aircraft (undergoing restoration), we visit their office building, also the collections storage site. Continue reading “The Donor Side”

Living with Hurricanes at the Louisiana State Museum

what remains of a piano damaged by Hurricane Katrina
Fats Domino's piano

Last month I was in New Orleans for a joyful family occasion, and I had the chance to see a new exhibit at the Presbytere building of the Louisiana State Museum titled Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond. I was intrigued by the exhibit to see how a museum in the heart of an affected area remembered and interpreted a major natural and human disaster. I was also drawn because Katrina had a direct impact on my family.

The joyful family occasion was my sister and her husband’s graduation from medical school. My sister moved to New Orleans for med school at the beginning of August 2005. Less than a month later, she was thousands of miles from her barely-unpacked house, with two cats, a car, and no idea when she’d be able to get back into the city. I viewed the events of Katrina and Rita through a familial lens; this exhibit was a chance to look at it from a different angle.

Overall, I found the exhibit compelling, informative, and I think designed in a way so that every visitor would come away having learned something. Information was presented in a number of ways, providing all sorts of ways for a visitor to connect to the story. The exhibit also seemed like it would not be too traumatic for someone who had experienced the storm to visit.

Continue reading “Living with Hurricanes at the Louisiana State Museum”

Museum on the Parade Route

I’m in New Orleans visiting my sister and her husband.  It being Mardi Gras season, we’ve gone out to catch a few of the parades. Last night the Krewe of Bacchus rolled with the theme “Bacchus Salutes the Greatest Generation.” It was a great theme, allowing for some fun floats, but also resulted in an unanticipated museum moment.

The National World War II Museum is located here in New Orleans. One of the first floats which rolled in the parade, after the officers, was a float sponsored and staffed by the Museum. I do not know the exact nature of the involvement was between Bacchus and the Museum – it could have been a pay-to-play, or even that some of the Museum board museum members are also officers in the Krewe of Bacchus. However it worked out, I thought it was a unique way of raising awareness and hopefully visitor numbers for the museum. The WWII Museum has only been open 11 years, and is located in the Central Business District, not the tourist-mobbed French Quarter. Until this year, I was only peripherally aware of its existence.

The Krewe of Bacchus is a super krewe – with more floats, bands, and all than the average krewe. It rolls on the Sunday of Mardi Gras weekend, attended by locals and tourists alike. For those who haven’t been to New Orleans in Mardi Gras, people of all ages go to the parades, camping out all day with grills and lawn chairs. Thousands of people lined the streets of New Orleans on Sunday to watch Bacchus roll with floats about WWII, and the float at the start dedicated to the museum. In theory, some of them might have been motivated to visit the museum the next day.

Personally, I hoped that the Krewe of Bacchus had also consulted the museum for material for the float. I’m not sure they did, but one of my favourite floats from that krewe came almost at the end: Propaganda Posters. Maybe the images came from a google search, but I like to think that some member of the museum was involved.

Case Context

I spent today at the Ohio Historical Society, in their library and archive. It’s a lovely reading room, with skylights, and the staff has been amazing.

During my lunch break, I took the opportunity to wander a bit among the collection near the main staircase. Just off the central area, flanking what appears to be a pull-down screen presentation space, are 6 cases. The cases have a variety of objects all of which look to me to be American decorative arts, presumably from the history of Ohio. Every case has a label across the top, declaring them Treasures from the Name Of Person Collection (I don’t remember the name). There are no labels in any of the cases.

I felt the cases need labels for the object. There was no context, no presentation. A Windsor chair with some nice teawares, paintings, and other household goods. Some silver, a portrait, a vase. How do they relate? Why did they go into a case together? What is the collection, and why were these given to the museum? Yes, this information might be available on the website, but that only helps very inquisitive people with smartphones.

As I was thinking these, staring at a case of anonymous objects, the part of my brain which was still at work kicked in. I wondered about the Person who Donated. Donors can attach strings to their donations: things must be on display, or not. Some museums can decide not to accept the conditions, but sometimes it’s hard to refuse. I wondered if the donor wanted approval for label text, or if there was too much disagreement about how and what to write. One of the dangers of displaying everything or anything you receive as a donation is that the provenance you discover by research may not be what the owner thought they knew.

Writing label text is a difficult art. You have to capture all the important information without going on too long, convey it all in a way that is both coherent and yet comprehensible to all ages. It can be time-consuming, but it is important.

The cases, with their nameless, unidentified objects, frustrate me. I don’t know the reason, or reasons, why the objects have no labels; I don’t think the reasons matter as much as the need to tell the stories of these objects – and the people who interacted with them.

The Man Behind the Curtain

In case you don’t recognize the source of the post title, it’s from the Wizard of Oz (the film). All four travelers are in the Emerald City, awed by the Wizard, and then Toto pulls aside a little curtain to reveal an ordinary person. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” says the Wizard, a little desperately. But they don’t.

I love that quote. It’s partly about magic, which is based on misdirection, but rather than misdirect it somehow draws attention to what you’re not supposed to see. I love seeing how things work, whether a car engine or a museum. I also like being part of the world behind the curtain.

I’ve been aware of the world behind the curtain for years. When I was four or five years old, I started ballet and theatre classes, both of which culminated in productions. I’ve known about green rooms and lighting technicians and all the work which goes into a show for almost my entire life. My mother was, for my entire childhood, a professor, and so I never wondered where teachers went at night. I knew that, like my mother, they went home to families. When I was in high school, I volunteered at the museum I had frequented as a child, and for the first time experienced the delicious pleasure of walking through a door labeled “STAFF ONLY”.  I have always known that there was a backstage, and enjoyed working there.

One of the startling realizations for me, working as I do behind a curtain at a museum, is how many people don’t seem to know that the curtain is even there. A number of people, when I tell them where I work, ask if I’m a guide, and are surprised that there’s anything else to do at a museum. Some visitors are likewise surprised to find that there are buildings not open to the public; I can see them thinking “but what do they do in there?” And there was the one volunteer who interrogated me about our operations, apparently unwilling to believe that a non-profit museum still operated like many other organizations, with financial and administrative departments (but then, he also assumed the entire curatorial department were volunteers).

I am not entirely sure how to change this, or if it should be changed. At my institution, we are in the process of furnishing a historic house, and our guides talk about the work that goes into this effort. This is a start, and hopefully gives people an idea of what curators and museum researchers do. I wonder if there is more I could do, individually, or if just explaining my job at coffee hour at church and such places is enough.

Have other people encountered this lack of understanding, of awareness of the backstage at museums and historic sites etc.? Are there better or worse ways of explaining, of opening the Staff Only door (figuratively, anyway)?

“History doesn’t change”

Recently I went down to south-west Florida to visit my grandfather, who lives in one of the many retirement communities in the area. He said “We’ll do whatever you want,” and I said “Hey, let’s check out the local history museum.” My grandfather admitted he’d never been, despite having been in the area for over a decade, and away we went. It was a very nice County Museum, with a small static exhibit in the administrative building and a nice collection of pieces and small buildings in the outdoor area/garden.

We went to leave, and said we would be back. The woman who was working the desk at reception/gift shop area said “Well, everything here will be the same – history doesn’t change!”

I just nodded, but her statement bothered me. True, the actual facts of history are, at this point, static. What happened does not change. Our understanding of it, on the other hand, does. Their exhibits included topics such as the Seminole, slavery and escaped slaves, and the logging of the cypress forests. How those topics are presented today are not necessarily how we would present them 15 or 30 years ago; who knows how we will interpret them 15 years from now? Scholarship certainly changes. Public history changes, too.

I know that this is a small county museum, which is part of four museum sites operated by the county museum administration. They don’t have a large staff, their budget is definitely small. They may have limited opportunities to change their exhibits, even if their administrators (whoever they may be) wanted to do so. To me, however, saying “History doesn’t change” is to say “this place is static, only worth seeing once, because it and history are only worth a single walk through.” Museums and history deserve second looks, because you never know what you might discover that you missed before.