Category Archives: Objects

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.

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

Are There Cultural Connections Between North and South?

Newport Symposium Banner 2015On April 26-29, 2015, the Preservation Society of Newport County (aka the Newport Mansions) is hosting a symposium on the cultural connections between the North and South from the Colonial Period to the Gilded Age as seen through furnishings, silver, textiles, painting, architecture, and interiors.  Scholars include:

  • Daniel Kurt Ackerman, Associate Curator, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts
  • Brandy Culp, Curator, Historic Charleston Foundation
  • Caryne Eskridge, Project Manager & Research Coordinator, The Classical Institute of the South
  • Stephen Harrison, Curator of Decorative Art & Design, Cleveland Museum of Art
  • Brock Jobe, Professor of American Decorative Arts, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
  • Alexandra Kirtley, The Montgomery Garvan Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art
  • Jefferson Mansell, Historian, Natchez National Historical Park
  • George McDaniel, Executive Director, Drayton Hall
  • George H. McNeely IV, Vice President, Strategic & International Affairs, World Monuments Fund
  • Richard Nylander, Curator Emeritus, Historic New England
  • Tom Savage, Director of Museum Affairs, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
  • Susan P. Schoelwer, Robert H. Smith Senior Curator, George Washington’s Mount Vernon
  • Arlene Palmer Schwind, Curator, Victoria Mansion
  • Carolyn Weekley, Juli Grainger Curator, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
  • Martha Willoughby, Senior Specialist, Christie’s

Registration is $600 and includes an opening reception at Rosecliff (1902) and dinner in the Great Hall at the Breakers (1895).  Scholarships are available to undergraduate and graduate students, as well as arts and humanities professionals.  To register or for more information, contact symposium@NewportMansions.org or call 401-847-1000 x 160.  Tell them that you heard about it from Engaging Places and you’ll receive a 10% discount!

Historic House Museums Gather for AASLH Workshop in Charleston

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For the past fifteen years, George McDaniel and I have taught a two-day workshop on the management of historic house museums for the American Association for State and Local History.  We cover a wide range of topics from fundraising to interpretation to disaster response to collections management–we really need a week, especially if there’s a lot of discussion.  That was certainly our experience last week in Charleston, South Carolina (and thanks to our hosts, the Historic Charleston Foundation!), where our discussions were so rich that I wasn’t able to complete most of my presentations.  That’s okay because the workshop is for the participants and as long as they find a topic that’s worth exploring, I’ll stay with them.  Indeed, George and I often find that we’re not instructors but facilitators, raising ideas and questions to provoke thoughtful discussions to help participants improve the management of their historic sites.

At the core of workshop is each participant’s “burning question.” They share their biggest concern or issue at the start of the class and at the end, they describe how they might address it when they return to their site.  It’s not only a way to make the workshop more relevant to the participants, but it also gives us a glimpse into the issues facing historic house museums around the country.  This year the questions included: Continue reading

Hot Topics in Collections Management Tackled in St. Paul

The annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History always covers a diverse range of topics, but collections management is certain to be among this.  This year in St. Paul was no exception and three very different projects caught my attention.

"Deteriora and the Agents of Destruction" by the Indiana Historical Society.

“Deteriora and the Agents of Destruction” by the Indiana Historical Society.

In a poster session, Tamara Hemmerlein shared Deteriora and the Agents of Destruction, a publication of the Indiana Historical Society.  Presented as a “living graphic novel,” it informs readers about the various ways to preserve collections from light damage, pests, dust, and mishandling (represented by such villians as Ultra Violet, Mass-O-Frass, and Miss Handler) and includes links for additional information.  I’m not sure of the intended audience, but it’s a lot more fun than reading a collections management policy.

collections avalancheChatting in the hallway, Continue reading

Video: Behind the Scenes: Alan, Curator

This 2:53 video features Alan Jutzi discussing his work as the chief curator of rare books at the Huntington Library.  It’s one of five videos comprising “Behind the Scenes: Staff and Researchers at the Huntington Library,” which gives visitors a peek into the inner workings of a library that is normally off public view. The videos focus on day-to-day processes—and personalities—of a conservator, curator, archivist, page, and “reader” (the Huntington’s term for a scholar/researcher). Visitors to the Huntington can view them on iPads in “The Library Today,” an education display in a room adjacent to main exhibit, “Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times.”  Yes, it’s missing an educator but it does help explain the work of some of the people at a research library.  Is this something that would help the public, donors, and supporters better understand the work you do?  You’ll find more details about the videos in Jennifer Watts’ post on the Huntington blog.

Pushing the Period Room Beyond the Period at Hunter House

Hunter House, Newport, Rhode Island.

Hunter House, Newport, Rhode Island.

Last week I was in Newport, Rhode Island (no, I wasn’t traveling with the President; I was conducting a marketing assessment for an historic site) and visited Hunter House, the historic house that prompted the formation of the Preservation Society of Newport County.  Today the Society is best known for its Gilded Age Mansions (or Cottages depending on your point of view).  Hunter House has a beautiful view of the harbor but it’s off the beaten path and focused on colonial history, which doesn’t attract the crowds who make the pilgrimage to The Breakers and other grand estates along Bellevue Avenue.

The lower profile gives Hunter House the opportunity to try a different approach to period rooms, one that I find much more successful from an interpretive perspective.  Although visitors often believe that period rooms show how people actually lived, curators know they are exhibits created to evoke an era.  While they may contain authentic furnishings, they are often displayed or arranged in inauthentic ways for aesthetics, safety, security, or lack of sufficient knowledge.  Period rooms are also victims of tradition and nostalgia–how many times have you seen Continue reading

Video: National Museum of American Illustration

This 10:00 video introduces the collection, artists, and setting for the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, Rhode Island.  It’s narrated by Judy and Lawrence Cutler, the husband and wife team that own and operate the museum; Whoopi Goldberg (yes, the comedian and actor); and Joanna Maxfield Parrish, granddaughter of Maxfield Parrish.  This appears to be a 2009 production by Daybreak Productions.

Video: Art Splash at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Jill Frechie produced this 2:00 video explaining Art Splash, a summer program for families at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Emily Schreiner, associate curator of education, explains some of the 300 programs offered during the ten week period, which features a different object each week.  Three hundred programs in ten weeks? I’m exhausted just thinking about it.