museums


This is a post for my friends in the three-county metro Detroit region, before our primary elections next Tuesday, August 7.

On the primary ballot this year in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties is a millage proposal to help fund the Detroit Institute of Arts, our amazing local art museum. The DIA has been suffering from the strangling of public funding, and this millage proposal will support DIA operations for 10 years as they fundraise for a more robust endowment.  For those 10 years museum admission will be free to residents of those counties.  If the millage is not passed, the DIA will severely cut its programming and exhibits and perhaps consequences more dire (more layoffs?  eating the endowment?  closure?).  Regional museum funding works, and it can help the DIA get on firmer financial funding.

The ballot proposal language is pretty opaque–funding for an “art institute authority”–but please look for it on August 7 and vote for the DIA!

 

It is a testament to the quality and high level of engagement of this year’s NCPH conference that the web is already full of conference reports; here’s mine. The NCPH/OAH meeting in Milwaukee was full of interesting sessions on vital work in the field, passionate people doing good history, free wifi, and excellent beer. I’m clearly biased as a native rustbelter, but Milwaukee was a fine place for 2000+ historians to gather—friendly, compact, and with its own history to explore.

The conference began with a THATCamp with the usual quotient of inquiry and energy. After the conference had officially opened, our session on contemporary DIY movements and public history institutions (which, thanks to Kate Freedman’s presentation, became known as “the steampunk panel”) was on Thursday morning. The presentations were followed by a challenging discussion, and we’ll be putting some version of the panel online.

I also heard a great panel about interpreting women’s history at unlikely places. “Assume women were there,” said Heather Huyck of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites, capping off the session after a surprising presentation about interpreting Julia Dent Grant and enslaved women at the US Grant Historic Site in St Louis. Many posts on other sessions can be found at History @Work, as well as discussions of some of the organizational issues at stake, in particular the still-up-in-the-air fate of The Public Historian journal.

Milwaukee’s museums were another highlight of the trip for me. I was lucky enough to get a tour of the Milwaukee Public Museum, one of America’s great encyclopedia museums. The typewriter was invented by Milwaukee resident Christopher Sholes and the MPM has one of the world’s best typewriter collections, which the curator graciously took me into storage to see.  The exhibitry there is also fascinating; they have an enormous amount of natural history and anthropology content, told through dioramas, including early work by Carl Akeley.  I also visited the art-of-engineering museum and the lovely mid-century conservatory, The Domes.

See you next year in Ottawa!

Library of Congress CIP data for Kraken

While much ink has been spilled on the role of curation and curators writ large in contemporary culture, it’s useful to have a reminder of the power of the curatorial enterprise–to radically revalue objects, to change their contexts and transform them into something else, into artifacts. China Mieville’s Kraken (2010) explores the way curation can literally rewrite the world. An escatological urban fantasy with fluourescing bits of black humor, Kraken follows Billy Harrow, a curator at the Natural History Museum in London, and what follows when the museum’s rare and enormous giant squid specimen suddenly disappears.

“I’m Billy,” he said. “I’m a curator. What that means is that I do a lot of the cataloguing and preserving, stuff like that.” (4)

“Tell me about yourself, Mr. Harrow. You’re a curator, I think?” “Yeah.” “Which means what?” “Preserving, cataloguing, that sort of stuff.” Billy fiddled with his glasses so he did not have to meet anyone’s eye. He tried to see which way the woman was looking. “Consulting on displays, keeping stuff in good nick.” (21)

When the protagonist  is asked, twice, in the opening pages of the book, what it is he does as a curator, he’s very vague. But we also learn that he was the staff member who prepared the giant squid specimen when it came it, and he’s known for having a good hand with molluscs–that is, that he is personally responsible for the museumification of the missing cephalopod.

Billy starts out self-effacing, a naïf caught in a bizarre chain of events. But after a journey through a London of competing apocalypses, Billy becomes convinced of the power of all-encompassing metaphors–and in doing so he reminds us of how museums can rename and recategorize.

At a climactic moment in the novel, to save the world from an apocalypse immenatized by a magician made of ink, Billy convinces the universe that a preserved giant squid is not a kraken, a totemic godling, but instead something more pedestrian but no less powerful–a museum artifact.

“Kraken’s a kraken,” Billy said. “Nothing to do with us. That? That’s a specimen. I know. I made it. That’s ours.” (487)

“….It’s not an animal or a god,” Billy said. “It didn’t exist until I curated it. That’s my specimen.”

He had birthed it into consciousness. It was Architeuthis dux. Specimen, pining for preservative. Squid-shaped paradox but not the animal of the ocean. Architeuthis, Billy understood for the first time, was not that undefined thing in deep water, which was only ever itself. Architeuthis was a human term.

“It’s ours,” he said.

And here’s the clincher:

 “It’s a specimen and it’s in the books,” Billy said, “We’ve written it up.” (488)

For Mieville here, curatorial writing has Adamic power.  Fixing the artifact into writing (and, here, it’s a once-alive artifact, a scientific specimen) changes the artifact as well as the world it inhabits.

This is why “curate” is still a word to conjure by in our culture.  It still promises transformative power.

This post is part of a blog celebration of two-year anniversary of the #twitterstorians community, organized by the indefatigable Katrina Gulliver.

I’ve spent most of the past two years working on a very large automotive history exhibit. 80,000 sq ft, to be exact–bigger than most museums and probably the biggest exhibit I will ever have the opportunity to help develop. Besides vehicles, the exhibit includes 65 exhibit cases, which are thematic and put automotive history into a broader cultural context. I curated 21 of them.

To avoid museum fatigue and to try to ensure that visitors would read some of the text, we had very severe word limits. I found myself explaining the importance of the Erie Canal in 20 words in a caption to a commorative medal, the entire career of Andrew Riker in 40, the immense importance of kerosene in the 19th century in 20-some, and how a Stirling engine works in a frequently-rewritten 25. And while I was writing, I turned to my experiences—and community—on Twitter.

I’m often asked (and often asked on Twitter) if Twitter has changed my exhibit writing. It has. I live on Twitter and have become very comfortable talking about my own experiences—work, food, bike rides, friendships, religion—140 characters at a time. When I was stumped in label-writing–for instance on that kerosene paragraph, in an exhibit case about American experiences with petroleum–I started breaking my labels up into tweets. When I fatalistically believed I could never fit the content I thought vital for visitors into 45 words, I had to reframe my thinking: this label is three tweets long. I know instinctually how much content can fit in three tweets. These are constraints I understand, constraints that work. And it worked. The words and concepts fell into place in my newly-conceptualized mental space.

Besides reframing my writing into tweets, I benefited from my community on twitter. This includes stalwart historians who tend to use the #twitterstorians hashtag, as well as museum professional colleagues, but it also includes the scientists, writers, journalists and miscellaneous friends who found my process interesting and worth cheering on. Whenever I needed encouragement, syntactical help, or just to complain a little, someone from my extended Twitter community was available. This ambient support and critique helped make my writing possible. Thank you, Twitter, and thank you, #twitterstorians.

Since I seem to be blogging again, here’s a links post on recent topics in publichistoryland.

Various reports, updates and roundups on the document thieves who targeted historical societies, archives and presidential libraries.

 

A costumed first-person interpreter at Plimoth Plantation has a piece in The Hairpin entitled The Ladies of the 17th Century Were Way More Hardcore than You.  The comments alone are priceless, ex:  “Old Sturbridge Village or gtfo.”

Just released by Left Coast:  Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, edited by Bill Adair, Ben Filene and Laura Koloski.  It’s full of pieces by fabulous museum, history, tech and education people. I will certainly pick up a copy.

The UMass Amherst public history program is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a two-day conference about the future.  Public History 2036 (pdf) will take place on campus Sept 23-24 and features lots of great folks.

Rebekah Higgitt, intrepid historian of science, has branched out from Whewell’s Ghost with a new blog, Teleskopos.  Highly recommended.

Historian of geology Naomi Oreskes has been using history for good to intervene in climate change debates.

Citizen History at the Holocaust Museum.

Forecasting the future of museum ethics, a project of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums and the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall.

Have a wildfire?  Call a historian.

A new exhibit space for Harvey Cushing’s collection of brains.

The “Three Societies”–the History of Science Society, the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science and the British Society for the History of Science–meet together every 4 years.  Next July, they’ll be meeting in Philadelphia.

Remember this conference?

This great event about the Public History of Science and Technology will be happening September 11-14 at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC.  The program is up and registration will soon follow. I’ll be talking about cabinets of curiosity and contemporary museum practice on the 13th, and the program is filled with great colleagues.  Hope to see you there.

I was about to write a post on libraries and museums in Joplin and across the recent tornado and flooding zones–but it seems useful to take a step back.  I want to understand why I’m so drawn to reflection on cultural heritage responses and recoveries in the face of disasters, both natural and human-made.  There are two ideas here to tease out, I think–the vulnerability of collections to water and fire and earthquakes, and the place of cultural heritage institutions in community recovery.

For the first, many institutions are unprepared for sudden disasters.  We often have disaster plans, but they may not be well-distributed or well-publicized, and staff may not know what to do.  Or the scale of the disaster is beyond staff ability to remediate.  May 1 is a time where we’re supposed to raise awareness about these issues, so here’s your obligatory MayDay for Collections link, with connections to resources

Disasters also remind us of our stewardship responsibilities.  At collecting institutions, part of our job is to ensure that the stuff outlives us, so that future visitors can encounter and learn from and wonder at it.  Artifacts like huge pieces of machinery dwarf us and by their sheer bulk may convince us that they are not vulnerable.  But of course they are.  And if/when we let them fall apart, we become part of a story about hubris, and ruins, and the dustiness and incommensurability of the past with the present.  Is this the story we want to embody? 

For the place of LAMs in disaster recovery, I always wonder what I can do as a historian and museum person–as opposed to an EMT–in the face of disaster.  And I’m drawn to the idea of cultural heritage institutions as places of hospitality.  The library in Joplin is open and took no damage, though some staff had their homes destroyed. It’s both service and hospitality to provide a free warm place with electricity and internet access, as well as access to other resources. That’s not nothing in a disaster situation.  Museums are not so good as this, though some have been imagining them as places for community, food, resources, learning and wonder in response to both current challenges and post-apocalyptic scenarios.

I think I cover these disasters, then, in that they affect cultural heritage institutions, because they are opportunities to help both people and collections.  To help people by providing them with space and resources and an assurance that their stories are important; and to help collections by an increasing attention to their physical vulnerability.  And because it’s worthwhile to publicize opportunities to help.

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