Category Archives: Authenticity

On the Road: Hitting Triples with a Single Artwork

Entrance hall, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City.

At the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, a monumental bright white sculpture of an Indian slouched on a horse fills the end of the entrance hall. James Earle Fraser created “The End of the Trail” for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, earning him a Gold Medal. It also became a popular image that signaled the end of a free people.

The Museum acquired the plaster statue from Tulare County (California) Historical Society, where it sat outside in a city park deteriorating for nearly 50 years. Now the restored statue is the centerpiece of this large museum and they’ve used this one object to hit a triple with visitors, to borrow a phrase from baseball.

Along with a typical label describing the sculpture’s creation, acquisition, and significance, it includes a Native American View in a second label of equal length by Dr. David Edmunds, a Cherokee. He states that the sculpture represents the popular view of “a nineteenth century Indian warrior defeated and bound for oblivion—frozen in time. By the 1890s, Native Americans knew their trail had become steep and rocky, but they believed it would continue.” The label continues to discuss the challenges and opportunities faced by Native Americans in the 20th century and that “being Indian has never been cast in stone. Today, Native Americans proudly ride forward on a trail into the future.”

The use of labels to provide multiple perspectives is not uncommon in art museums, but I haven’t seen it used enough in history museums. They are ideal places to show that events, places, and eras are experienced differently by different people. It’s an easy way to enrich interpretation without the need to create entirely new exhibitions or special events on women, African Americans, or Native Americans.

The Museum gets to second base by incorporating a third label for children, but it’s made mysterious to capture their attention. It’s smaller and positioned for their height, featuring just one question. The answer is printed below but hidden in a tangle of color than can only be revealed with a viewer that filters out some of the colors. These labels are found throughout the museum but I have to admit I didn’t see children using them—they found the objects far more fascinating and relied on their parents for the interpretation. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see a museum consider the needs and interests of a specific audience in order to engage them.

Finally, the 18-foot sculpture is an eye-catcher and the Museum saw that its popularity would continue in selfies. So they built on that interest to mark the best place to stand to take a photo and provided a hashtage. Increasingly museums have become aware they need to create “photo opportunities” to engage visitors as well as to aid publicity. Providing a spot on the floor is a terrific idea (and they appear elsewhere in the Museum).

I do wonder, however, if this monumental sculpture sets the right opening tone for the museum. It reinforces the harmful stereotype of the “proud savage” that was defeated long ago and is now gone. Is it any different from a bronze statue to a Confederate general astride a horse in a museum about the Civil War? What’s the message being conveyed? What do visitors think? Visitors rarely read labels and at the Museum, they’ve probably been pulled away by the other nearby exhibits before they’ve had a chance to read how the sculpture reflects one perspective and that the story is much more complicated. The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum needs to be bolder with the interpretation of “The End of the Trail” to overcome the symbolism of the image, and indeed, it may require more than words. Let’s aim for a home run.

On the Road: Rethinking “Cast in Bronze”

At my first stop at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, I was faced with a historical marker at the entrance to the parking lot. A unexpected location but far more accessible than on the side of a busy highway. All of the recent conversations about decolonization has me always take a closer look at these markers but more interestingly, I’ve encountered several different types of markers so far on my road trip that have me thinking more about their value, veracity, authenticity, and permanence by being “cast in bronze”.

As you’ll see, location matters as much as the text. Some are intentional efforts to deceive, some are not. Some are historical, some artistic, some a bit of both. They are all designed to be inspirational, some more deeply than others. Do any of them matter? Do they have any impact? What do you think?

“Great Indian Warrior/Trading Path,” Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, Maryland.
“Eddie Taylor, Mayor of 7th and Wabash,” Terre Haute, Indiana.

“History of Springfield Public Square,” Springfield, Missouri.

NMAAHC Director Lonnie Bunch Named a Washingtonian of the Year

Lonnie Bunch, a Washingtonian of the Year.

Lonnie Bunch, a Washingtonian of the Year.

The January 2017 issue of Washingtonian, the magazine for the Washington DC region, named Lonnie Bunch as one of its “eleven locals whose commitment to helping others makes Washington a better place to live.” Usually the list is made up of wealthy philanthropists, sports figures, political leaders, and education reformers, so it was a nice surprise to see an historian who works at a museum named among its most benevolent in a city full of history and museums .

Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last fall and whose continuing popularity makes admission one of the hottest tickets in town.  Bunch was previously the president of the Chicago Historical Society and curator at the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History, and the California African American Museum, where I first met him twenty years ago when I was conducting research on jazz bands in 1920s Los Angeles.  I’ve always enjoyed my encounters with him, which often happen as happy accidents through a last-minute invitation to dinner in Chicago, running into him during the Folklife Festival, or sharing a car ride with him to the airport in Charleston.  So I was delighted when he agreed to write the foreword for my first book, Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites.

Washingtonian recognizes Bunch for his effort to find a spot on the Mall for the museum, raising much of the $270 million to match Congress’ contribution, and attracting donations from people across America.  I also know him as a Continue reading

Curated Nutrition Bars Interpret Collections and Earn Income

Curated-Blue-and-Gray-Battle-BarCurated nutrition bars are turning out to be an effective way to interpret collections and earn income for museums and historic sites across the country.  First introduced by the Friends of Gettysburg National Battlefield for the July 2015 re-enactment, the “Blue & Gray Battle Bar” drew inspiration from the historic Civil War battle.  “We knew the kinds of foods soldiers were eating so it was just a matter of coming up with a combination that tasted good and was good for you,” said curator John Rupp, “Hard tack, peas, and coffee had to be in there, of course, but we had to work with food scientists to figure out how to include salt pork.  Quinoa wasn’t my idea, but someone said we had to include it for marketing purposes.”  Fortunately, the curators were also able to have some fun and included minie balls, which also resolves a major deaccessioning challenge because of the thousands that fill their collection.

Other museums and historic sites heard about the success of this venture, especially after it was featured in the fall issue of Museum Business.  Currently under development are:

  • Big Met Bar: It’s so big, you’ll be full before you’re even halfway through.
  • Smithsonian Behring Bar: a sprinkling of stars from a spangled banner, dinosaurs, pandas, air, space, and some wonder. So many flavors you can’t tell what you’re eating.
  • Colonial Williamsburg’s Christiana Campbell Bar:  crab, salet, and corn pudding dipped in heritage chocolate (with zombies!).   It’ll be about 4 inches high and equally thick.

If you know of a museum or historic site that’s developing a Curated bar, please share it in the comments below!

 

National Archives Should Allow Photography in Exhibits IMHO

No photography allowed in the exhibits at the National Archives?

No photography allowed in the exhibits at the National Archives?

Last weekend I went to see “Spirited Republic,” a temporary exhibit at the National Archives about the history of alcohol in the United States.  I’m interested in the history of food and knew the Archives would dig up some interesting materials. It was a worthwhile visit but ugh, right at the entrance is a sign declaring “no photography.”  This isn’t unusual for temporary exhibits because they may contain materials that are protected by copyright or have objects on loan.  In this exhibit, however, everything was drawn from the collections of the Archives or had fallen out of copyright.  If I went around the building to the Research Room, I could retrieve any of the items on display and make photographs without question.  Secondly, most of the items are historic governmental or administrative documents, which don’t encourage selfies or other distractions.  Photographs would most likely be taken by people who were really interested in the subject and wanted an image for reference.  If they’re worried about light damage, people can be warned not to take flash photos (and studies by conservators show that flash photography has to reach excessive levels to cause significant damage, so this is usually an unfounded concern).  If they’re worried about security, everyone has already been screened in the usual DC way and guards are posted throughout the exhibit.  Finally, photography is one of the only areas of creative activity that’s growing in the US (bucking the declines in sewing, painting, pottery, or music according to studies by the National Endowment for the Arts) and the Archives has a rich trove of content for inspiration (and it helps publicize their exhibits and collections). The “no photography” makes absolutely no sense at the National Archives.  Instead, the National Archives should assume that  photography will be allowed unless there are specific and legitimate reasons not to do so.  Just follow the same rules as in your Research Rooms.

Prohibitions on photography isn’t the only stumbling block to public access and historical interpretation at the National Archives–I’m sensing a growing use of Continue reading

Openluchtmuseum Requires Mental Gymnastics in Historical Interpretation

Telephone booth, 1933-1965.

Telephone booth, 1933-1965.

The Openluchtmuseum, or Open Air Museum, in Arnhem in the Netherlands is one of the oldest outdoor/living history museums in the world. Opened in 1918, it preserves traditional and folk cultures by collecting vernacular buildings, furnishing them to specific periods, and using them to demonstrate historic crafts and skills.  In the last decade, they’ve expanded these approaches by adding multimedia presentations along with interpreting the post-war period as part of an effort to create a national history museum interpreting the “Canon of the Netherlands” (the canon is a divergent idea worth investigating).  In this post, I’ll examine their interpretation of the post-war period and in a later post discuss various unusual exhibition techniques.

At first glance, the Open Air Museum seems to be comprised of distinct clusters of farm buildings from a distinct region and time, where you can wander through houses and barns and watch someone in costume making brooms or working a plow.  But the layering of history is complex and I found myself continually asking, “what time is it?” and “how are these things related?” to make sense of my visit.  There are lots of historical anomalies, such as a 1960s phone booth in front of a 1910s train depot, but perhaps they’re not anomalies if you mentally reinterpret the scene by finding the overlapping period, such as the 1930s.  These intellectual gymnastics don’t always work, but then again, the entire concept shaping the Open Air Museum allows for the artificial juxtaposition of historical places, times, and objects–which is what often happens in art museums and can also be bewildering (ever visit the Robert Lehman Gallery at the Met?)

The experience caused me to think hard about the role and purpose of interpretation Continue reading

Is Historic Preservation Ready to Preserve Culture as well as Architecture?

Sustaining San Francisco's Living History by San Francisco Heritage

Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History by San Francisco Heritage

The fundamental boundaries of historic preservation have been significantly expanded by San Francisco Heritage, one of the country’s leading historic preservation organizations. In Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History: Strategies for Conserving Cultural Heritage Assets, they state that, “Despite their effectiveness in conserving architectural resources, traditional historic preservation protections are often ill-suited to address the challenges facing cultural heritage assets. . . Historic designation is not always feasible or appropriate, nor does it protect against rent increases, evictions, challenges with leadership succession, and other factors that threaten longtime institutions.”   In an effort to conserve San Francisco’s non-architectural heritage, historic preservation must consider “both tangible and intangible [elements] that help define the beliefs, customs, and practices of a particular community.” Did you notice the expanded definition?  Here it is again:  “Tangible elements may include a community’s land, buildings, public spaces, or artwork [the traditional domain of historic preservation], while intangible elements may include organizations and institutions, businesses, cultural activities and events, and even people [the unexplored territory].”

With many historic preservation organizations, it’s all about the architecture so protecting landscapes, public spaces, and artwork is already a stretch.  They’re often not aware that Continue reading

Period Rooms at a Modern University

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During a recent visit to Pittsburgh, I visited the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.  At 535 feet, it’s the tallest university building in the nation and dominates the skyline east of downtown.  Despite its name, it’s more skyscraper than cathedral.  It’s also an historical and architectural landmark, built between 1926 and 1937 as an Art Deco “cake” with Gothic Revival “frosting.”  For those of us working at historic house museums, what’s most interesting are the Nationality Rooms, a series of 29 classrooms on the first and third floors designed and furnished to represent different nations and ethnicities.

The classrooms vary in size but each have Continue reading

Cleaning Out My Cabinet of Curious Stories

Like all good museologists, I have a small cabinet of curiosities where I collect things of wonder, inspiration, and imagination.  Mine is virtual and sits in Evernote.  It’s time for a year-end clean-up, so here are a few that didn’t develop into full blog posts but even in their unrefined state, seem sufficiently interesting to share:

Google Maps Historical Society 2013

Google is continually looking for ways to get information to us as quickly and easily as possible. The last couple years it’s been creating quick descriptions of places using five keywords–but I’m not sure how they’re derived. A recent search for “historical society near Maryland” in Google Maps associated the American Historical Association with “symbol” and the Historical Society of Washington DC with “celebrities.” Who doesn’t like attention like that? The most surprising, though, is the description of the DAR National Headquarters with Continue reading

Historic Visitors Help Connect to Today’s Visitors

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Modern visitors encounter historic visitors in Annapolis, Maryland, a clever way to connect people to the past.  In their visitor center on the waterfront, the Historic Annapolis Foundation installed a wall of life-size images of famous and popular celebrities who have visited Annapolis during the past two hundred years.  The main label reads:

Who are these people, and why are they here?

You may recognize a few of them, or perhaps all of them.

Each of these people is famous for one reason or another, and each spent time in Annapolis.  Some were here in the recent past, while others many years ago.  Some passed through the city on a whirlwind tour, and some called Annapolis home.

But what does George Washington have in common with Sarah Jessica Parker?  The Marquis de Lafayette with Mark Twain?  Amelia Earhart with Michelle Obama?

Their common bond is that each of them could return to Annapolis today and recognize downtown because of Historic Annapolis.  Thanks to historic preservation, Annapolitans Continue reading