The Tooth of the Matter

As the seminar comes to a close, we end our museum visits on a transitional notion.

The International Spy Museum gave us a look at pulling everything they had, prior knowledge, outside knowledge, and the desire to implement those categories into future knowledge.  How did what they know and what they learned meet at a confluence for writing that next chapter in their story? And how does that translate to us?

We all come from different backgrounds, different places, different interests, different museums, and different passions. Our stories are results of what has happened and what is happening, crafting the narrative for our next story after this seminar.

We all have plans and designs and ideas for what happens next, but as the Spy Museum showed, sometimes that changes and one must adapt, but that doesn’t mean the core narrative has to change, maybe just the word choice or the size of the page you have to tell your story.  With an experience like this, the opportunity to pull from other narratives, stealing other techniques, and reinforcing your own story with knowledge from another becomes central to moving forward.

On Monday, I’ll be back at the National Museum of Dentistry, and Jaws’ “infamous teeth” were a somber and exciting reminder of that.  Now, I am at the transitional moment, reflecting and growing from the stories I’ve heard and been apart of these two weeks.  I get to go back with 23 new individual stories influencing my decisions, thought processes, and choices, which not only will shape my own story, but the story I am privileged to tell at my museum.

Thanks for the stories.

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It’s the gray area where stories lie in today

Nuances do not exist until individuals are both ready to acknowledge them, and contemporary information transitions into primary material.

There is a process for talking about complicated information, and that process takes time. In my first blog post that was not a video of me, I discussed the idea of time. I discussed the relative path that we, as conscious beings, attribute to our lives, although it is an abstract construct with no definitive relationship to reality.

Controversy and nuance live within that construct of time. They are topics, which are attributed to the “gray area,” an abstraction on the scale of two finite ends. They are concepts, topics, which coexist with society. Topics that resonate differently at different times due to mainstream awareness of the ideas and the acknowledgement and reactions that follow.

Slavery has existed since the determination of power, on a scale with the ends of dominance and subservience. Slavery, within the realm of the United States does not share that lengthy existence.  Slavery within the United States is only twice removed in relation to lineage.  There are still remnants of the experiences that took place. Time has allowed it, however, to be acknowledged and personified.  A desire to psychologically understand, and humanize the choices of slave owners destigmatize the controversy.

Time does not heal all wounds in this circumstance, but it has certainly distilled emotions and increased awareness of the ways contemporary slavery can be studied and questioned.

The same concept can be applied to other difficult stories, like the Holocaust.  They are complicated topics, where the choices and stories, although steeped in facts, are still raw with emotions.

Stories from the Unknown/Battling Against the Sounds of Curiosity

For all we know, there is still so much information that we do not know.

From the deepest depths of the oceans to the missing links of evolution, the stories of the unknown are interesting, curiosity driven topics that fascinate the masses.

NMNH Mini Aquarium.jpg

The National Museum of Natural History explores both of these topics by mixing incredible facts, anomalous finds, and educated leaps to explore these massive concepts.  Almost to the point of inundation with knowledge, the facts, theories, and hypotheses are in constant competition with the sensory overload of not only every sense that accompanies upwards of 50,000 visitors daily, but also of the colors, lights, content, and mixed modes of media utilized to share the stories of natural history.

As Senior Scientist and Curator Hans Sues shared at the start of our tour, and mentioned many times throughout, there are a lot of objects and stories that spill into the narrative of natural history.  Although, he mentioned the shift away from the Wunderkammer, there is still an innate atmosphere of a myriad of important objects on display, and in every way deserving of being displayed, which the National Museum of Natural History exudes, and maybe should not ever shy away from simply due to the sheer volume of topics and objects the museum covers.

Even if today was a battle of the senses, it gives way to the inherent curiosity of humankind museums strive to satiate, and at the National Museum of Natural History, there are enough curiosities to keep a visitor satisfied for a lifetime.

Fresh Air & Facts

Mt. Vernon Potomac RiverSitting amidst history, letting time pass by. This was my memorable moment of the day.

Reflecting upon the grandeur of a location, and my part within this space and time.  Knowing that where I sat is because of the storied history that stemmed from this Virginia plantation.

Having a carefully and calculated vista to gaze upon and be lost within as my own respite away from the lines, the emotions, and the feigned and unfeigned interests, my thoughts drifted towards the power of a public space.

With the reflective nature of a curated scene, I left behind the facts of the past and looked at the present, the present that lasted until 3:00pm.

At 3:00pm, the present was transformed to the past, a past steeped in facts and emotions.

Mr. Sheels brought us into the life of 1798, greeting us as General George Washington’s guests.  After introducing himself, the man came to life, sharing personal feelings and thoughts, weaving in query based narratives that fed seamlessly into a story that continues to be summarized as “it’s complicated.”

The power of a performance and perfection of a view glaze over the complications, making the story seem less complex and troubling, but at its core, controversy is complicated.  Creating a story without apology, without anger is complicated.  That is, except for Christopher Sheels who does it with fact, dignity, and grace.

Staff 1st.

Buy in matters. A genuine concern matters. Change matters.

The Smithsonian has made leaps and bounds in conservation, exhibitions, and setting the standards many museums aspire to, but even for the majority that is not enough, and rightfully so.

A public space is meant for the public. Not a cross-section, not a specific individual, but the public.

This is not achievable, however, without acknowledging accessibility of every kind.

From preparing visitors with cognitive disabilities to understand what experiences take place in your space, to making sure history lovers are accepted among art lovers, to facilitating ease of movement for visitors with physical disabilities, a public space should provide for and welcome everyone.

Missions, funding, and boards among other elements create barriers to these possibilities. So how can we break down those barriers, making accessibility more than just budget a line that is first to be redistributed? The process starts with the staff.

Staff, which includes paid, unpaid, intern, volunteer, and anyone who provides some sort of function to the museums. They care for the collection. They choose the objects. They make sure the doors are open for the public. Each staff members ensures the visitor enjoys the experience they deserve, which is fundamentally a visitor curated by the staff.

Now, imagine if that entire staff knew how to encourage and facilitate an experience for someone on the autism spectrum, someone that was blind, that spoke another language? And, in addition, genuinely believed each visitor deserved an encompassing and encouraging museum experience?

Creating a completely accessible place and experience starts with understanding, it starts with developing an institutional body language that says we want everyone to enjoy themselves, understand something new, and spark an interest that makes every visitor feel like they can and should revisit.

To compete, or not to compete, that is the question.

How do you best your objects?

When your objects create awe-inspiring moment after awe-inspiring moment, how do you even compete?  And, more importantly, do you even want to compete?

The answer to that important question is different for every institution.

At the National Zoological park, animals compete with the desired story lines.

At the Panda House, one wall provides a look into the life of a majestic, adorable, fascinating, and entertaining creature, and the opposite wall is filled with learning.  Which wall would you choose to look at during your visit?

The audience is given a choice, but with a very clear answer.  The competition will always be won by the creature instead of the learning experience.

There is, however, no loser if there is no competition.

There were very few opportunities to learn when looking at the pandas, unless someone was talking at you while viewing the habitat.  There were also absolutely no opportunities to view the animals when learning.  On the panda side, there were railings, empty space, and wall below, above, and to the sides of the glass that have huge potential for didactic or media based story telling without interrupting the viewing area, rather than simply being unused barriers to the glass.

On the learning side, there was text, interactives, and photographs, but absolutely no way to see the animal without turning your back on learning.  The Zoo offers webcam feeds of a few of its animals, with the Giant Panda being one of those viewing options.  Incorporating that live feed within the learning area ensures that the visitors never lose the opportunity to see the animal while taking a chance on learning something.  Imagine the interactive wall at NASM meets Giant Panda webcam with interactive facts, videos, and the potential to even see a panda that is out of view from the glass, but perfectly in view of one of the cameras.

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If there is learning and animals on both sides, there is no longer a choice to be made by the visitor, and no competition to enter.  At the Zoo, the answer to our question is no, you shouldn’t compete, and thankfully the Zoo doesn’t seem to be trying to compete.

At the Hillwood Estate & Gardens, story lines competed with an overabundance of visual wonders.  The sheer number of objects in the mansion overwhelmingly tell the story of a fascinating and influential protector, promoter, and collector of the arts and culture.

However, even though the objects identify a part of Marjorie Merriweather Post, grounding her as a collector, without the stories found within the orientation video, audio tours, stationed docents, or handouts, the story of an inspiring woman is lost within the hundreds (if not thousands) of objects on display.

The Estate already has barriers in place to separate the visitor from a variety of pieces within most rooms.  Turning these barriers from rope and stanchions to barriers of knowledge with text and other visual or audio aids could create a closer connection with the objects and the room even if it does put them farther away.

Pavilion Room

Hillwood Estate’s Pavilion Room

In this case, our question is answered with a yes, you should compete, and that is exactly what the Hillwood Estate is doing.

Giant Panda Cam. (2017, February 21). Retrieved March 24, 2017, from https://nationalzoo.si.edu/webcams/panda-cam

Pavilion. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2017, from http://www.hillwoodmuseum.org/about-hillwood/mansion/pavilion

Maksel, R. (n.d.). Happy 40th Birthday, National Air and Space Museum! Retrieved March 24, 2017, from http://www.airspacemag.com/daily-planet/happy-birthday-national-air-and-space-museum-180959588/

The new model is concise.

How do you summarize thousands of objects, and millions of stories into 50 words?

This is the struggle modern museums face while adapting to the phenomena of the digital age. Minimizing word usage while increasing content, creating a clear and concise message that speaks volumes while barely speaking at all. The importance of clarity is driven by the element of time, and the competition for attention. Finding the right words to say can be the difference between staying or leaving. Between entrancing and boring.

Finding the right words to say can spark the fire of exploration or drown you in the waters of inaccessibility on one and inundation on the other.

The National Air and Space Museum turned their museum into 100 terms, and is looking to trim that count down to 50. The National Museum of African American History and Culture strives for 75 words or less to accompany their objects on exhibit. The National Museum of the American Indian strategizes by thinking of an exhibit without words and building from that point to incorporate the right words to tell their story.

Is 50, 75, 100, or even 150 words enough? Can a story be told without words? Can it be told through emotions evoked and visuals viewed?

Can a museum grab your attention with bold conciseness and encourage deeper delving into a script behind the word?

That’s the new model.  The new test that can only be graded through trials and time.

Katy Perry, Albert Einstein, and Gertrude Stein Walk into a bar…

We travel upon a narrative thread that weaves its way through objects, through places and entangles itself among other threads along the way. Frayed ends make us think about what could be that never was. Knots represent a joining with another thread creating two threads that travel in unison for a time.  And, eventually we reach the end of our thread and get cut.

But, ultimately, that thread is always there. It is still tied to other threads, although, time may make the knots looser and frayed, the thread is still there. There may be objects and places holding our threads together, never letting go, continually adding threads to its collection, and leaving our connections to be uncovered.

But that thread is still there.

As museum professionals, we trace those threads, pulling them closer to our own, and doing our best to wrap them around the threads of everyone else.

We utilize those threads, creating nets that capture our audiences, then launches them towards exploring new threads they never knew existed.

This is the power we have as story tellers, as captivators, and purveyors of the objects, places, times, thoughts, dreams, and feelings that exist through history.

Katy Perry, Albert Einstein, and Gertrude Stein may never have actually walked into a bar, but today their threads crossed.

Katy Perry – http://npg.si.edu/object/npg_C_NPG.2015.135?destination=portraits/search%3Fedan_fq%5B1%5D%3Dp.edanmdm.descriptivenonrepeating.unit_code%253A%2522NPG%2522%26edan_q%3Dkaty%2520perry%26edan_local%3D1%26op%3DSearch

Albert Einstein – http://npg.si.edu/blog/portrait-albert-einstein-max-westfield

Gertrude Stein – http://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.78.196?destination=portraits/search%3Fedan_fq%5B1%5D%3Dp.edanmdm.descriptivenonrepeating.unit_code%253A%2522NPG%2522%26edan_q%3Dgertrude%2520stein%26edan_local%3D1%26op%3DSearch

How tall are you?

Today, I found out just how tall people are.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is an immersive exploration into American history, culture, and art, covering huge topics from slavery to civil rights and jazz to rock n’ roll. What each story artfully breaks down to is people, and, more importantly, specific people and groups that are representative of a larger story, an American story.

2011.51.13

Photograph of James Brown, Civil War veteran, with a picture of Abraham Lincoln

In the end, these people were just people who actively, forcefully, or passively took and take part in this narrative.

These people were and are people with the same skills as other people.

They create art just like other people.

They create communities and identities like other people.

And, no matter what his or her stature in the public eye, or even within the context of history, they wear clothes just like you.

TJ Statue

The Paradox of Liberty Exhibit

Some might wear a small jacket, some might wear a large jacket, but, ultimately, we all wear jackets at some point in time.

Today, I learned just how tall some people are.  And, it made me realize more than ever that they were just people too.

Miles Davis – 5’7″
Michael Jackson – 5’9″
Thomas Jefferson – 6’2″
Abraham Lincoln – 6’4″
Gabby Douglas – 4’11”
Oprah Winfrey – 5’7″
Me – 5’10”

Photograph of James Brown, Civil War Veteran, with a picture of Abraham Lincoln – https://nmaahc.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2011.51.13?destination=explore/collection/search%3Fedan_q%3Dlincoln%26edan_local%3D1%26op%3DSearch

Green coat worn by Oprah Winfrey as Sofia in The Color Purple – https://nmaahc.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2014.184.1.2?destination=explore/collection/search%3Fedan_q%3Doprah%26edan_local%3D1%26op%3DSearch

Jacket worn by Michael Jackson – https://nmaahc.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2011.19?destination=explore/collection/search%3Fedan_q%3Djacket%26edan_local%3D1%26op%3DSearch

Leotard worn by Gabby Douglas during her first competitive season – https://nmaahc.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2013.12.1?destination=explore/collection/search%3Fedan_q%3Ddouglas%26edan_local%3D1%26op%3DSearch

Jacket made by Joe Emsley and worn by Miles Davis – https://nmaahc.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2014.97.4?destination=explore/collection/search%3Fedan_q%3Djacket%26edan_local%3D1%26op%3DSearch

Time…

Time is a fascinating subject. A relative term that confines existence.  When looking through the stories from the collection, I was immediately drawn to the stark contrast of intricate timepieces on a simple dark background, with the title “A Moment Captured in Time.”

A Moment Captured in Time

The story that followed the click to appreciate the beauty and intricacy of the two watches turned immediately to a haunting reminder that time does not start or stop for any human.

The watches belonged to the NAACP’s field secretary for Florida in 1951, Harry Tyson Moore, and his wife, Harriette.  Although both watches symbolize a very important moment in both of their lives, the solemnity attached to Mr. Moore’s watch imposed a story that deserves to be shared.

Following the link to the story, the first sentence is, “On Christmas Day, 1951, the NAACP’s field secretary for Florida Harry Tyson Moore, and his wife, Harriette, were murdered” (NMAAHC, 2017).

Harry T Moore Pocket Watch“You would never have known, by looking at it, that it had survived a bomb blast” (Ibid).  A bomb blast that immediately killed Harry Moore and eventually killed Harriette Moore.  Time survived, Mr. and Mrs. Moore did not.

This pocket watch is not the only object left to tell to the story of Civil Rights activist Harry Moore, but it is one of the more personal and humanizing reminders of the day to day life Moore experienced.

Donated by his youngest daughter, Juanita Evangeline Moore, who survived the Christmas Day bomb blast, this object is part of the Moore Collection at NMAAHC, and is currently on display in the Defining Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation, 1876-1968.  The watch is both a physical and emotional connection to “a man who died half a century ago. It is a way to reach through time and experience this man’s courage and the violence perpetrated against him for that courage” (Ibid).

I have always been fascinated by the intricate mechanics that go into even the simplest and plainest looking watches, and even more so fascinated by the concept of time.  Watches are objects that humans plan and live their lives according to.  They are physical representations of the fleeting nature of life.  They embody an innate desire for structure and the ability to change. All in one object that could fit in your pocket.  For Harry Moore’s watch, the watch contains a never-ending story of courage that forcefully and brazenly ended too soon. Initially being drawn to the physical appearance, the object solidified its impact through the tragic story of its owner.

(2013, October 09). We Plants Are Happy Plants – Apollo. Retrieved March 14, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_S9q-phYxmI

NMAAHC (2017, February 16). A Moment Captured in Time. Retrieved March 14, 2017, from https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/collection/moment-captured-time