Category Archives: Collections

Encountering Jefferson in New York

“I cannot live without books,” said Thomas Jefferson in this letter on display at the New-York Historical Society.

Did you know that one of the largest collection of manuscripts related to Thomas Jefferson are in Massachusetts, not Virginia? And for a few months, 36 of these documents and artifacts are on display in Thomas Jefferson: The Private Man at the New-York Historical Society. It’s not much but it’s amazing.  I’ve read about them over the years and sometimes seen images, but there’s nothing like seeing Jefferson’s actual garden book, his last letter to John Adams, his sketch of a slave cabin, manuscript leafs from his Notes on the State of Virginia, early drawings of Monticello, a copy of the Declaration of Independence in Jefferson’s hand, and the oft-quoted letter that states, “I cannot live without books.” Cool!

So how did they get to Massachusetts?  President Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph, married Joseph Coolidge of Boston in 1825. Their son purchased Jefferson’s documents from the Randolph family in 1898 and donated them to the Massachusetts Historical Society, where he was a member.  The collection continued to grow with gifts from subsequent generations and are now digitized and available online thanks to a grant from Save America’s Treasures (a superb funding program that was eliminated by President Obama in 2010, alas).

But the ties between Massachusetts and Virginia continue. Their granddaughter, Dr. Catherine Coolidge Lastavica, loved the family history so much that in 1968 she built the Brick House on the family estate in Manchester, Massachusetts, modeling it on the George Wythe House in Williamsburg, Virginia—that’s where Jefferson studied law under Wythe’s tutelage. Historic New England recently accepted the Brick House as a study property and conference facility in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Center.  Wow, what a small world.

 

 

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

San Francisco’s Newest House Museum is a Conceptual Artwork. Or Is It?

The David Ireland House, 500 Capp Street, San Francisco.

The David Ireland House, 500 Capp Street, San Francisco.

A couple weeks ago I had an opportunity to visit the David Ireland House, a house museum that recently opened in San Francisco.  Unlike New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Washington, DC, San Francisco has only a handful of house museums so the addition of the Ireland House is a significant one—and unusual.

David Ireland was a conceptual artist active from the 1970s to 2000s, becoming an artist in his 40s after serving in the Army and leading safaris in Africa. In 1975 he purchased a modest 1880s Italianate-style house in the Mission District from an accordion maker and proceeded to use it as his home while transforming it into an artwork, most visibly by peeling away layers of wallpaper and then coating the plaster walls in polyurethane varnish.  Yes, strange but true. With his death in 2009, the 500 Capp Street Foundation (the address of the David Ireland House) saved the house, hired the Architectural Resources Group to lead an extensive conservation process, included a sensitive award-winning addition by Jensen Architects, and opened the house last year to the public.

This is a difficult place to interpret because Ireland not only treated the historic house as a contemporary artwork, but it is conceptual art, which puzzles most people when encountered in an art museum (remember Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain?). It’s not only non-traditional, but questions the very nature of art.  When you encounter a pile of neatly stacked firewood, you’re wondering if you’re looking at an artwork or simply a stack of firewood.

"The Sound of Blue," by David Ireland.

“The Sound of Blue,” by David Ireland.

The David Ireland House handled this very well by starting the tour with a conceptual artwork (or was it two?).  Visitors first step into a sparse room, where you purchase tickets and are welcomed by the guide.  After a few minutes of chatting, the guide points out an artwork that was discovered in the house: a butane torch mounted on a stand made of copper plumbing pipes.  He proceeded to explain it was called the “Sound of Blue,” lit the torch, and turned on a cassette tape recorder whose microphone was aimed at the torch.  We watched it together for a minute, when another guide picked up a newspaper laying on a table, read aloud the date and a headline, and then placed the newspaper on a stack forming in the corner of the room.  The tape recorder was then turned off along with the torch.

That was weird. What just happened? This is art? What does this mean? What’s going on? Is this serious or an elaborate hoax? Is the whole tour going to be like this? What’s going to happen next?

Yup, that’s exactly the reaction they want you to have. It provoked the kinds of questions and reactions that David Ireland would have liked, so the rest of the tour was a combination of short explanations followed by a lot of questions from me, which they encouraged.  Although the entire house is treated as an artwork, there are no stanchions and you can wander where you want.  Tours are guided and intentionally kept small to protect the objects, so you have a great sense of freedom to explore and wonder if you’re looking at an artwork or it’s just a chair hanging on the wall.  It is at times bizarre (you encounter a piece of birthday cake preserved in a Mason jar) and amusing (a pile of firewood stamped with the artist’s initials), but it did cause me to think about the nature of art, art curators, and art museums. Others, however, might find it silly and shallow, but that’s one of the points of conceptual art as well: the viewer determines the significance and meaning of an artwork, not the art dealer, curator, or museum. Indeed, is this an art museum, an historic site, or just David Ireland’s house?

Video: How Collectors Influence the Art Market

Artsy: How and Why Patrons Support an Artist

In this 4:03 video, Artsy explains why a patron supports an artist and how this influences the art market. What compels patrons to support artists’ careers? How has the model of commissioning impossible ideas lasted from the ancient Egyptians until today? This short film is the third and latest in a series of four short films about the art market by Artsy.  Even if you’re not interested in this topic, the interpretive presentation may be a model for your videos.

St. Louis’ new Blues Museum Needs More Artifacts (and Music)

National Blues Museum, St. Louis, Missouri.

National Blues Museum, St. Louis, Missouri.

In April, I had a chance to visit the newly opened National Blues Museum in St. Louis, Missouri while I was in town to lead a workshop with Ken Turino of Historic New England.  As the “only museum dedicated exclusively to preserving and honoring the national and international story of the Blues and its impact on American culture in the United States,” its mission is “to be the premier entertainment and educational resource focusing on the Blues as the foundation of American music.”  Those are pretty bold claims and we’ll have to give them some time to see if they can achieve them.  In the meantime, I wanted to share my initial reactions to the primary permanent exhibit designed by Gallagher & Associates of Silver Spring, Maryland (near my hometown!), who also designed exhibits for Mount Vernon, Gettysburg Visitor Center, and Jamestown Settlement Museum.

Housed in a former historic department store near the city’s downtown convention center, the bold use of panels filled with text, images, video, textures, and colors as well as a strong horizontal lines that pull you through each space, make it a compelling and attractive design. Indeed, it’s so effective that it didn’t strike me until about halfway through that the exhibit feels two-dimensional and there are hardly Continue reading

Can the Folger Library Figure Out Its Schizophrenic Photo Policy?

Photo booth at the exhibit that prohibits photography at the Folger Library.

Photo booth at the exhibit that prohibits photography at the Folger Library.

The Folger Library in Washington, DC is one of my favorite places because it’s about books and Elizabethan England, two things that fascinate me.  As an historian, books are not an unusual passion but as an American historian, I’m interested in the Elizabethan period because of the comparisons to our Colonial era.  So every time the Folger mounts an exhibit in their gallery, I go no matter the topic and want to document what I’ve seen and learned through photos (and share them with you!).  And yet, while copyright protects none of the material on exhibit, the guards frequently stop me from taking photos and one time I even had to prove I deleted the images from my camera.  The latest exhibit on Shakespeare was photo-prohibited because it was on loan, but again, none of the materials were protected by copyright (all pre-dated 1700). Ironically, at the entrance to the exhibit is a special booth where visitors were asked to share videos or photos of themselves talking about Shakespeare on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Huh? To thine own selfie be true, as long as it doesn’t include any actual historic objects on exhibit.

IMG_0499That’s such a contrast to other museums in DC which encourage photography.  The “Wonder” exhibit at the Renwick Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, is filled with contemporary art, which is typically tied up in a particularly rabid form of copyright protection, encourages photography with signs mounted in nearly every gallery. Somehow they’ve figured out how to allow photography by the public without jeopardizing their collections, reputation, or loan agreements.

Museums and libraries have to figure out how to embrace photography.*  While overall attendance has dropped for the past thirty years, interest in photography has grown by leaps in bounds.**  Indeed, it’s the only cultural or artistic activity that’s growing in the US and by prohibiting it unconditionally, museums and libraries are only further distancing themselves from the rest of America.

*The Rauschenberg Foundation recently developed a radical but thoughtful photography policy, which is described in the New York Times.

**National Endowment for the Arts, “Survey of Public Participation in the Arts,” 2012.

 

Free DIY Assessment for Your Collections

Rembrant's personal museum at Rembrant Huis, Amsterdam.

Rembrant’s personal study collection at Rembrant Huis, Amsterdam.

Historic sites have incredibly complex collections that range from furniture and photos to buildings and landscapes. Figuring out priorities for collections care can be daunting but thankfully, the University of Illinois Libraries with the help of IMLS funding, recently created a Preservation Self-Assessment Program (PSAP). It’s a free online tool that helps collection managers evaluate the condition of materials, storage and exhibit environments, and institutional policies for books, paper documents, photographs, recordings, films, and architectural prints in historic sites, museums, archives, and libraries. In addition, there’s a Format ID Guide, which includes identification cheatsheets in case you can’t tell a blue print from a Diazo print.

Staff and volunteers at any level of experience can use the PSAP. The program asks questions about your the materials in your collection, storage and exhibition environments, and collections policies to develop a unique profile for your organization and potential priorities for collections care. It includes additional help to explain concepts and principles, showing examples along the way. The application runs in your web browser; no software installation is necessary. No limit is placed on the amount of items or collections you assess; all data is securely stored on University of Illinois servers. The Illinois Heritage Association has a lengthy overview with more details.

Even though PSAP doesn’t cover everything you’ll encounter in your collections, it’ll help you with a significant part. Now someone needs to get to work on a Museum Self-Preservation Program in Illinois.

AASLH Annual Meeting Provokes Historical Thinking

Tim Grove facilitating a lively conversation about historical thinking at the AASLH Annual Meeting in 2015.

Tim Grove facilitating a lively conversation about historical thinking at the AASLH Annual Meeting in 2015.

The annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History always offers a good mix of educational sessions, social events, and opportunities to visit museums and historic sites around the country.  This year, Sam Wineburg, a Stanford University professor and author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001), prompted an ongoing discussion with his plenary address on the first day of the annual meeting.  Through his research on students and scholars, he showed that the analysis of historical documents is a sophisticated skill that isn’t apparent to most people (and I can confidently say this also applies to objects, buildings, and landscapes).  He went on to argue that teaching people to think historically isn’t about teaching history but making them better citizens.  John Dichtl, president of AASLH, discusses this further on the AASLH blog.

These ideas were pursued the next day at a packed session facilitated by Tim Grove of the National Air and Space Museum.  Using excerpts from Wineburg’s book, Tim encouraged a lively dialogue that allowed me to report out 15 Tweets, including:

  • Historical thinking: multiple perspectives; analysis of sources; context; and based on evidence.
  • Are we underestimating visitors if we don’t give them oppty to debate ideas & issues at museums/historic sites?
  • Debates always happen, but history gets flattened over time. Build multiple perspectives, uncertainty, & questions into exhibits.
  • Asking good provocative questions is a skill. Learn more at the Right Question Institute.
  • Challenge for marketing & communications staff about handling provocative topics in social media era.
  • Are museums & sites imposing their ideology on visitors? Have we become arrogant? Do we need to learn about visitor interests?

which resulted in 31 favorites and 20 retweets.  Just to be clear, these ideas didn’t come from me but from the persons gathered in the room.  I could have tweeted out many more but I couldn’t listen and type them out quickly at the same time.

If you weren’t able to attend, there’s next year in Detroit.  In the meantime, enjoy these snaps from the recent meeting in Louisville (and thanks to everyone at the Kentucky Historical Society for being such gracious hosts).

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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

Historic House Museums a Special Focus for the Public Historian

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum by Brandon Bartoszek

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum by Brandon Bartoszek

The May 2015 issue of the Public Historian was just released and provides a dozen articles related to historic house museums.  Lisa Junkin Lopez, associate director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and guest editor of this special issue, provides the criteria that helped her select the articles and her vision of historic house museums:

Though a number of sites have turned to revenue-generating activities like weddings and farmers’ markets to stay afloat, rigorous historical content has not necessarily been quashed in favor of parlor room cocktail hours and heirloom tomato beds. Many sites have recommitted to the project of excavating their own histories, digging deeper to find relevance with contemporary audiences and identifying new methods for engagement along the way.

The individual essays are case studies of various projects at historic house museums, but many question and even break the basic assumptions of museum practices and historic preservation standards.  This shift will need to be watched because Continue reading