Tuesday, 16 January 2018

POST COMMUNISM IN THE EASTERN BLOC: GERMANY, HUNGARY, and the CZECH REPUBLIC

MUSINGS ABROAD

BY: KRISTEN MCLAUGHLIN

A brief search through Google or a Europe travel guide will show what the majority of post-communist Eastern European museums focus on: World War II, Jewish heritage, and memorialization of atrocities, particularly during the communist era. Portrayals of communism in particular are fascinating, as the Cold War is fairly recent in the memory of the world, with many people who lived through it still around. It can tell us plenty about how a country views heritage preservation, history, storytelling, and what they deem important aspects of their country's identity.

There is a fascination in North America with the Cold War and all it entailed, and what it has meant for politics and society still today. However, I am interested in how some of the smaller museums in post-communist nations decide to tell certain parts of the larger story.



A map showing the Eastern Bloc, or Communist European countries, in red. Source.

To be sure, the aftereffects of communism--or any type of government regime--can last decades or even centuries. The Cold War ended only in 1989, when museological discourse was going through large shifts throughout Europe. Where and when different countries picked up and began working on institutions like museums again varies. I will be looking at three countries and three museums that tell us different ways countries memorialize communism (or not).

Germany -- Stasi Museum, East Berlin

Germany is well-known for recognizing and telling the stories of the atrocities that occurred both within and outside of their borders. Examples like Berlin's Jewish Museum and Holocaust Museum are well known, but there are other museums that hold fascinating stories about the recent past.

Last year I read a book titled Stasiland by Anna Funder, that covered the work of the female journalist as she went to East Berlin to find stories about the Stasi, the secret police (or Ministry of State Security) of East Berlin, created in 1950. It was an insightful look into a world I hadn't known about. The level of surveillance, espionage, and manipulation of everyday people by the Stasi is heart-breaking. There was virtually no part of life that was not monitored by the Stasi in East Berlin. So when the author went to a little museum in the original Stasi office buildings, I knew it was a place I'd want to visit someday (and still do). The museum is run by the Antistalinistische Aktion Berlin-Normannenstrasse (ASTAK), which was founded by civil rights activists in Berlin in 1990. The building was taken over by activists, who wanted all the information in the building kept secure and safe for the future. They wanted it to be kept a memorial and research centre on GDR Stalinism.

Since 1990, ASTAK has used these original Stasi offices as a museum to showcase different exhibitions and provide information, not only on the Stasi itself, but also for citizens, so they could know what and how the government had been keeping track of people or--in some instances--how they disposed of loved ones.

The story of the Stasi is a lesser known one in life behind the Iron Curtain. This museum uses a combination of artifacts and archival records from these very buildings to demonstrate the dangerous level of power and control the Stasi possessed. This museum is where 68 miles of shelved records were saved, as well as 41 million file cards, 1.7 million photos and negatives, and 15,000 bags of shredded remnants, which are now being slowly pieced back together.


Espionage technology on display at the Stasi Museum, which was used by the secret police everyday to monitor the citizens of East Berlin. 

Hungary -- Memento Park, Budapest 

Memento Park, or Szoborpark, is an open-air museum in Budapest, dedicated to the monumental communist era statues of Hungary. There are statues of Lenin, Marx, Engels, and several well-known Hungarian communist leaders. A quote by the architect of the park, Akos Eleod:

"This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship."

After the fall of the communist regime in Hungary in 1989, many of the communist statues were immediately removed. These form the basis of the current collection in the park. The park was not created as a symbol of heroism for the individuals on display, but rather, as a critique of the ideology that used these statues as symbols of authority. It walks a fine line of memorializing, critiquing, and showcasing, without giving too much power to these statued figures of history.


Welcome to Memento Park. Source.

Czech Republic -- Museum of Communism, Prague 

In the Czech Republic, reminders of communism outside of museums are hard to find, with nothing like Memento Park on display in the nation. Czech people were quick to get rid of anything that reminded them of communism. A memorial for Jan Palach, who set himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion of the Prague Spring in 1968, sits outside of the National Museum in Prague. This is one of the few public reminders of this time. It lacks the concrete architecture of other communist cities; its grand cathedrals and spires are of a medieval era preceding that of the mid-1900s.

The one thing they do have is the Museum of Communism, which is dedicated to presenting an account of the post World War II communist regime in, what was at the time, Czechoslovakia. However, this is an example of a museum that does not tell an objective story: it tells an emotive one, one with a point of view, where labels are never simply "the regime" but "the oppressive regime".



Diorama set-ups in the Museum of Communism in Prague. Source.

Museums about a topic like this--so life-altering, so dangerous, so dark--can be difficult to keep unbiased, difficult to keep objective. The question becomes: do museums about this type of history need to be objective? Can they have emotion, points of view? Or must they do a better job to convey a neutral point of view on a painful topic so as to not bias visitors?

In fact, the Museum of Communism is a private collection created by US businessman Glenn Spicker in 2001. According to one disgruntled visitor, "As far as I'm concerned, Prague doesn't have a Museum of Communism as of yet . . . for now, at least its streets continue to serve that purpose."


These three museums/memorial are three different examples of how some post-communist countries are choosing to remember the roughly 50 year period of their history. If anyone has visited the old Eastern Bloc and can recommend good/interesting/difficult museums to visit, leave a comment with your suggestions!


Monday, 15 January 2018

ROOTS: SEED SAVING, COMMUNITY, AND HERITAGE

A MUSE BOUCHE

BY: JENNIFER LEE

Flowers and fruit are only the beginning.
In the seed lies the life and the future.

- Marion Zimmer Bradley

Even the earliest of heritage professionals recognized the importance of collecting plant material. Hans Sloane’s collection, which became the foundational collection of the British Museum, included plant cuttings from his travels - now held in the Natural History Museum, London. Non-museum collections also collect and store plants: seed banks like the Millennium Seed Bank and Svalbard Global Seed Trust act as repositories for millions of seeds, protecting Earth’s biodiversity in the face of species loss and climate change. In a bleak post-apocalyptic future, we may need to call upon seed banks to repopulate plant species lost to climate change and disease. 

The Svalbard Global Seed Trust in Spitsbergen, Norway, has a storage capacity of 4.5 million samples. Source.

If this sounds somewhat anxiety-producing, fear not; seed saving isn’t just for doomsday preppers and biologists. Seeds are more than containers for plant DNA: they represent rich cultural and personal histories, and the possibility of stewardship, partnership, and reconciliation.

Global capitalism, in the form of huge farms breeding fruit and vegetables designed to travel long distances and last on the shelf, has eliminated thousands of plant varieties over the last century. We’ve moved away from seasonal consumption and diverse native varieties and toward imported foods and privately-patented seed varieties. In 1903, there were more than 500 varieties of cabbage in North America; eighty years later, there were 28. These varieties are often patented by large corporations, depend on pesticides, and are susceptible to disease and pest damage. It’s not unusual to hear news reports that imported foods Western consumers take for granted, like coffee, bananas, chocolate, and peanuts, may be extinct within decades due to climate change.

This flattening of our once-diverse food and plant cultures has a cultural toll as well as an ecological one. We stand to lose our understanding of where and how our food is grown, and our agency over our own health and consumption. Indigenous peoples, disconnected from their traditional territories, agriculture practices, and foodways by colonial reservation and residential school systems, are particularly vulnerable to the loss of their cultural knowledge and health.

Heirloom vegetables like this Glass Gem corn (available from Native Seeds/SEARCH) have been endangered by large-scale operations and imported varieties. Source. 

This is where seed saving comes in.

Individual seed savers and seed saving organizations are working to preserve, grow, and distribute native plant varieties. This can be itself a form of intangible cultural heritage. In some Indigenous nations, seed keepers traditionally safeguarded seeds, shared them with others, and passed heirloom varietals down to family members. For seed keepers, growing and keeping seeds strengthens connections to their cultures and ancestors. (Indigenous seed saving initiatives include plants for medicinal and ritual purposes as well as food.) Terrylynn Brant, a Haudenosaunee seed keeper, told the CBC, "There's so many foods that we have and enjoy that make us strong emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, that we couldn't continue to exist as Haudenosaunee people if we didn't continue to eat the foods of our ancestors."

It can also be a way to Indigenize health education. Dream of Wild Health, a non-profit seed saving organization in Minnesota, aims to recover “knowledge of and access to healthy Indigenous foods, medicine, and lifeways”, working through a community garden, public demonstrations and classes, and an Indigenous foodshare. A cornerstone program hosts a summer camp for Native American youth which incorporates organic farming, health, and traditional knowledge.

Youth gardening at the Dream of Wild Health farm. Source. 

It can also be a way to bridge divides, start conversations, and form working relationships. The CMU farm at Canadian Mennonite University (Winnipeg, MB) occupies a former Métis river lot. In 2015, CMU farm workers collaborated with Métis seed keeper Caroline Chartrand and the local Métis community in order to grow squash seeds cultivated by gardeners from the Miami nation in Indiana. Collaborative projects like this one open up space for settler-Indigenous dialogue over the land on which food is grown and create partnerships while saving vegetable varietals and Indigenous history.

Other communities are also making use of seed saving to preserve their heritage alongside their vegetables. The seed saver John Coykendall, who collects heirloom seeds in Appalachia, keeps details journals of his collecting expeditions, which he calls ‘memory banking’. Like a collections database, his notes record valuable contextual and historical information.

John Coykendall with a 'memory bank', a notebook used to record cultural memories and contextual information in his search for heirloom seeds. Source. 

“A little bit of ancestral history … Where were you living? Where did this seed come from? Did it come from your grandmother or grandfather? Was it brought here from somewhere else? How do you grow it? How was it cooked? ... If someone doesn’t record it, put it down, it is going to be lost for all time. That goes for the seeds. This is the living part of it. Living heritage. Our agricultural heritage.”

While global seed banks work to preserve our biodiversity and health at a macro scale, community and individual projects can work at the micro level, protecting cultural heritage and public health on a personal level. Many libraries (including our own at the iSchool!) house seed libraries – but given their potential to start conversations around culture, food security, health, and heritage, they might not be out of place at a museum either.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT: MUSINGS HOLIDAY HIATUS

LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

BY: SERENA YPELAAR

Another year gone, another great season of Musings done! It's such a pleasure to be celebrating the end of what was a jam-packed but rewarding term for both the blog and the Master of Museum Studies program in general.

When it comes to celebrating the Musings team's achievements, I'm as giddy as Scrooge on Christmas morning! Source.

This fall season, Musings Contributing Editors published a fantastic array of topics ranging from fun, lighthearted explorations to more grim but necessary discussions in the museum field. If you'd like to catch up on our archive of over 700 articles, Musings has a variety of columns approaching museums from every angle. Here are a few highlights from this past season to start:

Want to get caught up on the latest exhibitions open in the GTA? Exhibition Reviews from Julia and Sadie have you covered, from the ROM's Vikings and Dior exhibitions to the AGO's Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters, to a retrospective on frightening museum experiences and their impact.

Looking for insight on contemporary cultural heritage? Take some time to peruse Jessica's piece on the representation of non-western fashion in museums, Kendra's critical history of blackface in Canadian museums, or Kathleen's post on art and healing.

Of course, the holidays are full of food and fun, so check out Jennifer's post on edible art history at the Portland Art Museum!

For thinking outside the (gift) box: this season Emily, Hannah, and Amy flipped museums on their heads to look at non-traditional museum spaces in our newest column, Beyond Tradition.

Regardless of which holiday(s) you celebrate, all of us at Musings wish you a joyous and safe festive season. Source.
I would like to express how thankful I am for the supportive and open-minded community that is the Faculty of Information. Musings owes its success to the talent of our writers, the support of our students and faculty, and the inquisitive environment that characterizes the MMSt program.

When I write to you next, it'll be 2018 already! I have no doubt that the Musings Contributing Editors will return armed with new content to challenge the norm and expand the ways we look at museums. Until then, thank you for reading, and I hope you have a lovely holiday.

Friday, 8 December 2017

HOW CAN WE REMEMBER ANNIE POOTOOGOOK?

SHE'S MY MUSE

BY: KATHLEEN LEW

Annie Pootoogook, Bringing Home Food, 2003-2004. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017) at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
I first discovered the art of Annie Pootoogook in 2015, during an undergraduate Indigenous Art History course at Queen’s University. I was immediately drawn to her honest depictions of life in the North, whether it was watching television, eating with family, exploring her sexuality, or drawing experiences of abuse and addiction. I wrote my course paper on Pootoogook and her contentious place in both understandings of Inuit authenticity, and contemporary art.

Following my initial research, I came across articles about Annie’s life in Ottawa, but felt uncomfortable reading her struggles as headlines. Reporters were intruding on the artist’s personal life, and I was torn about how to interact with her career. When Annie was found dead in the Rideau River in September of 2016, I witnessed how my surrounding community mourned the loss of the artist. This was most visible through a student article in the Queen’s Journal, and statements from the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, who had shown a solo exhibition of Pootoogook in 2011.

Years later, I am still grappling with my admiration and knowledge of Pootoogook’s art. This time, it is in the context of a masters course on Museums and Indigenous Communities at the University of Toronto, and a visit to the first retrospective exhibition of Pootoogook since her death, McMichael Canadian Art Collection's Annie Pootoogook: Cutting Ice, curated by Nancy Campbell.

The same question remains as it did a year ago: How can I remember Annie Pootoogook?

There are many perspectives, including voices from the Kinngait community, Pootoogook’s colleagues in Toronto, art historians, and the press. Remembering is an active process, and like her art, we should honour Pootoogook within her complexities. It is impossible to approach Pootoogook's career just from her drawings, her biography, her womanhood, her place in the Canadian art world, or the larger systemic oppression of Inuit peoples in Canada. We must understand how these approaches intersect. 

Annie Pootoogook, Red Bra, 2006. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017) at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
Remembering Poootoogook as a great Canadian artist is one step, but I think there can be more action. We can ask how to remember Pootoogook, and continually improve these methods of remembering. By framing her legacy as a question, we can grapple with the significance of her life and work over time.

So here is my working list, one that will inevitably change. My attempt to answer the question—how can we remember Annie Pootoogook? The following list is what I have learned from Annie, and what I can continue to learn through her art.

1) See beauty and significance in the mundane. 

Annie Pootoogook, Ritz Crackers, 2004. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017) at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. 
Pootoogook drew life in Cape Dorset, showing viewers the simplicity of moments at home, and the significance of everyday objects. It could be ingredients for making Bannock, a box of Ritz crackers, a pair of scissors, or her grandmother’s glasses—all were given importance and care. Pootoogook demonstrates the value of documenting tradition, the present, and how they work together.

“Annie’s work is very different. Annie’s work is, like today and yesterday and…daily happenings, shopping, music, the feast. Sometimes she will draw very hurt feelings from her heart which she’s not afraid to say on paper.” – Jimmy Manning, manager at Kinngait Studios 

2) Create to heal. 

Annie Pootoogook, Memory of My Life: Breaking Bottles, 2001-2002, Photo Courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017) at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. 
Pootoogook’s drawings of anguish communicate Indigenous realities of addiction, mental illness, and violence. By drawing her memories on paper, Pootoogook could begin to make sense of her experiences from a distance. At the same time, these depictions force viewers to confront the hardships of Inuit communities.

“It seems that I throw that shit out of my mind and start drawing. Well, drawing makes me feel better… better a lot than before.” -Annie Pootoogook

3) Embrace sexuality. 

Annie Pootoogook, Woman at Her Mirror (Playboy Pose), 2003. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017) at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. 
Pootoogook was unafraid to depict the body, using drawing to explore herself and her relationships. Through art, Pootoogook legitimizes female and Indigenous sexuality, challenging the viewer’s discomfort of gender and sexual identities that are considered "other". 

4) Support and celebrate our family, friends, and communities. 

Annie Pootoogook, Pitseolak Drawing with Two Girls on her Bed (detail), 2006. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017) at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. 
Pootoogook’s practice was largely influenced by her family and her community. Pootoogook continually celebrated Pitseolak’s influence in her drawings, signified by her grandmother's black-rimmed glasses. Pootoogook’s career began with support from the Kinngait Studio, an artist community that creates prints for the Inuit art market. Pootoogook used the influence of her ancestors and community to chronicle her own surroundings and experiences.

5) Listen to contemporary Inuit voices. 

Annie Pootoogook, Dr. Phil, 2006. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017) at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. 
Pootoogook challenged assumptions of Kinngait as a pure, untouched North. She demonstrated the presence of Western influence, and the unique hybrid identities of Inuit artists. Nancy Campbell works to include community voices with Cutting Ice, exhibiting artists influenced by Pootoogook, such as Ohotaq Mikkigak, Siassie Kenneally, Shuvinai Ashoona, Itee Pootoogook, and Jutai Toonoo. Supporting contemporary Inuit art provides an awareness of Inuit realities, and further expands conceptions of Canadian art. 

6) Challenge Western art historical categories. 

Annie Pootoogook, Gossip, 2006. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017) at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection 

Pootoogook’s drawings are both familiar and foreign, making them difficult to classify within a Western art world. Her mixing of cultures creates instability, as Southern viewers connect with aspects of contemporary life, while simultaneously feeling isolated from Inuit tradition. Pootoogook’s career broke the glass ceiling for Inuit art, insisting that Inuit, female, and contemporary identities can exist simultaneously.

7) Question how we depict Indigenous artists in the media.

How is art world fame constructed, and how does it affect the artists on display? 

Annie Pootoogook, Sobey Award, 2006. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017) at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. 
Pootoogook winning the Sobey Art Award in 2006 provided opportunity for the artist’s career, while also profoundly influencing her approach to the art world. The press’ invasive treatment of Pootoogook’s struggles with alcoholism and homelessness leading up to her death demonstrate the importance of representing artists with honesty and dignity.

Who creates fame for artists? For what audience? Where is the distinction between an artist’s work and their personal life?

8) Understand Pootoogook’s death within a larger context of gender-based violence.

Annie Pootoogook, Man Abusing his Partner, 2002. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017) at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
While the cause of Pootoogook’s death is unknown, it is important to acknowledge the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. Pootoogook’s gender and cultural identity intersect with her experiences of violence. Sexual violence was a reality in Pootoogook’s life and art. Pootoogook’s death is a reminder that communities are continually fighting to stop violence against Indigenous women.

9) Acknowledge colonial violence and work towards reconciliation. 

Annie Pootoogook, Begging for Money, 2006. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017) at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
Pootoogook’s drawings of contemporary struggles in Cape Dorset, and her experiences living in Ottawa and Montreal, demonstrate the continual existence of colonial violence. The systemic oppression of Indigenous peoples persists in Canada. Colonial oppression is something that needs to be addressed both locally and nationally. Like Pootoogook's legacy, reconciliation is an active process, as we work towards more equitable relationships.

10) Act with the belief that we can be better.

Annie Pootoogook, Composition (Happy Woman), 2003-2004. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017) at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
Pootoogook took many risks throughout her career and embraced opportunities to further her practice. She exhibited work in Toronto, completed the Glenfiddich Residency in Scotland, exhibited at Documenta 12 in Germany, and experimented with individual objects and cinematic scale. Pootoogook did not limit her art-making to Western perceptions of Inuit or contemporary art, and neither should we. There is always more to learn.

I encourage you to visit the McMichael before Cutting Ice closes in February. Confront your own understandings of Annie Pootoogook and contemporary Inuit art. Explore how you will remember Annie, and keep questioning long past when you leave the gallery.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

DUST, RUST, AND ALL THE REST: SPECIAL HOLIDAY EDITION

CONSERVATION TIPS & TRICKS

BY: JULIE DAECHSEL

Surprise! "Dust, Rust, and All the Rest" is back for one last edition. This post is dedicated to the Royal Ontario Museum’s iconic totem poles.

The holidays are nearly upon us, and for some this means hanging out with friends, entertaining visiting family, or relaxing after the marathon known as final term assignments. All three activities can quite nicely be enjoyed at the ROM – and while you’re there, you can wow your guests (or yourself) with some historical and conservationist facts about the famous ROM totem poles.

Like all great stories, this one begins over one hundred years ago when Bill 138 passed on April 16, 1912. This bill officially created the Royal Ontario Museum, yet the University of Toronto, who first proposed a museum in Toronto, had been collecting objects for a museum long before this legislation. The university tasked Charles Trick Currelly, a graduate of Victoria College and self-taught archaeologist, with filling their proposed museum, which he did with unmatched vigor and passion. 

Charles Trick Currelly. Source.
In the spring of 1913, as the administration and management plans for the new museum were being finalized, Currelly was sent out on a lecture tour. By all accounts, Currelly was a tad overenthusiastic and this series was intended to keep him from meddling. In British Columbia, he was intrigued by the craftsmanship of the west coast people. Through Canadian anthropologist Marius Barbeau, Currelly purchased three totem poles for the museum.

It is important to contextualize this purchase as it occurred during the Indian Act, under which the potlatch ban criminalized the creation of Indigenous ceremonial and cultural art. There was a mad rush to acquire (although in some instance “seize” might be more appropriate) Indigenous objects and art. A fourth totem pole was collected by British medical doctor and hobbyist ethnographer Charles Newcombe in the 1920s.

Transporting artifacts is a test of ingenuity and planning. Transporting totem poles, the tallest of which was twenty-four metres, from British Columbia to Toronto is a logistical nightmare. The poles were floated down the Portland Canal to the ocean, then towed to Prince Rupert. The largest pole was cut into three sections while afloat before it could be loaded into a railway car. 

The Portland Canal to Stewart, BC. Source.
All of this work was almost for nothing, as there was no room in the original museum for the totem poles. They could be erected outside the building, but Currelly had been told that they wouldn’t last for more than one hundred years outdoors. What follows is perhaps the greatest example of collections management-obsession ever.

A hundred years sounds like a long time to most. But remember when I said that Currelly was obsessively passionate about his museum? A hundred years wasn’t good enough (especially when people were certain that Indigenous craftsmanship would end). Currelly was so certain that the museum would warrant an expansion in the upcoming years that he decided to preserve and store the totem poles until they had a home inside.

By no means a conservator, really by any standards, Currelly remembered his time at dig sites and the unconventional methods of artifact handling to create a preservation method. He soaked the poles in petroleum until they were completely saturated, then poured gallons of floor wax over them. Finally, they were wrapped in protective bandages and burlap then lain outside the museum until a new wing was built in 1933 with a specially designed area to display the poles (fun fact: this is the Queen’s Park wing with the old entrance the will be reopened). Incredibly, the totem poles were perfectly preserved after more than a decade outside.

Now they sit in the two stairwells off the Rotunda, still preserved after more than one hundred years. But there was a casualty of Currelly’s conservation treatment: the petroleum oil destroyed the original paint decorations. Otherwise, the totem poles are in great condition.

The totem poles in their specially crafted home. Source.
By displaying the totem poles inside, there are fewer conservation dangers: the CCI Notes for indoor totem poles only warns about the wood cracking, as red cedar is a moist wood that splits as the moisture evaporates after logging.

The poles should be dusted infrequently to prevent uneven polishing or abrasion. When dusting is needed, use a vacuum with a long-haired attachment, as Rick Mercer did at the Canadian Museum of History.


This is officially the last Conservation Tips and Tricks post of 2017. Hopefully on your next visit to the ROM you’ll see the totem poles in a new light. Happy Holidays!

Further Reading:

Dickson, Lovat. The Museum Makers: The Story of the Royal Ontario Museum. Canada: The Bryant Press, 1986.

Horrill, Mallory. "81 Years in a Museum". Musings. October 2, 2014.

Kenter, Peter. "Work of indigenous builders lives on in ROM totem poles". Daily Commercial News. July 28, 2016.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

RELEVANCE BEYOND THE CLASSROOM

RESEARCH COLUMN

BY: LANA TRAN

I’m driving a proverbial bus right now, and if you have a moment, take a ride with me.

Now that first semester is nearing its end, it’s time to take your pulse. We all wrote letters of intent before signing up to become the next generation of museum professionals. What was your intent? What was the intention of your intent?

In truth, our submissions are self-promotion tools, demonstrations of our love for the field –what we can do for museums, and what they can do for us. While we extrapolate our intentions to the role of museums in society, many of us smuggle that bit of selfish ambition: the curator with the corner office. Let’s start by curating our Pinterest boards – ethno-bling and hanging showpieces for that dream job.

We still speak about civic engagement as if we are not civilians –What should we teach them? Will they understand? Will it be entertaining? Again, intention comes into play: We speak of idyllic museums, decolonizing museums, new museums. But this is a classroom, and its easy to speak in should be’s.

Take your pulse: are you living outside the classroom? Have you stepped outside the safety of (a written paper, an exhibition assignment, an internship) and tried something completely unrequested, but sorely needed? When a civic issue gives you a twinge, ask yourself what action you can take with the resources at hand. It could be an ad-hoc workshop, a guerilla exhibition, or a collective of students who feel the same way. The license to make mistakes and learn from them has an expiry date –it is much harder to gamble with institutional time and money than your own. Clichés be damned, now is the time to experiment.

Whether the supercilious tone of this article irks you or bores you, we all need to recognize that academia can be just as insular as museums themselves.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

BEYOND PHYSICAL SPACE: VIRTUALLY, A MUSEUM

BEYOND TRADITION

BY: HANNAH MONKMAN

Hi everyone, and welcome to Beyond Tradition's final post of 2017! The New Year will soon be upon us, and we may start looking towards our futures — but what about the future of museums themselves? In our efforts to remain relevant, will museums transform beyond recognition?

A question posed by Twitter user @museweb asks, "When is a museum not a museum?", as they share an article by Sarah Burke discussing the Kremer Museum—a new virtual reality museum created by George and Joël Kremer. (I encourage everyone to go read it here!)

Is a museum still a museum if its walls are made of code instead of brick and mortar? Source.

While museums have used virtual and augmented realities to supplement their physical institutions, this is the first that exists entirely in virtual space.

A constructed virtual reality has many benefits over a physical space. There is no daily maintenance of the architecture or displays, you can make sure the lighting on each painting is perfect without hassle, and you can even create displays with pieces located across the world that might never be able to stand next to each other in a physical exhibition. Visitors are free to explore and interact with the museum without crowds, and the technology allows them to visit from anywhere around the world (although how accessible this truly is should be questioned, since virtual reality hardware is still unaffordable to many).

However, while new technology may seem innovative and exciting, there are a lot of other questions we can—and should—be asking as well.

Source.
Perhaps the most concerning (in my opinion) is absence of social experiences in virtual reality—although a "multiplayer" version is certainly conceivable for the near future, museums are often highly social environments for most visitors. Would they be as interested if they had to "visit" alone, or take turns?

In addition, virtual reality is still primarily seen in the gaming world. Would this cheapen the museum experience, making it more game than museum? Would that even matter? The first visitors were children, who expressed excitement over the experience while relating it to games—would other demographics hold the same eagerness, or would they see it as trivial or "gimmicky"?

While virtual reality has other uses, it's still primarily associated with video games. Could museums break that mold, or end up being associated even more strongly with entertainment over education? Source.

As Joël Kremer asserts, his "goal is to expand the museum experience, not replace it." With this in mind, I think the virtual museum is incredibly exciting and I'm interested to see how it fares. 

But what do you think? Will the museum offer new and exciting alternatives to the traditional museum experience, or will it fall short of visitor expectations?