Category Archives: Objects

Can the Exploratorium Help Us Explore History?

Last week I visited the Exploratorium in its new home on Pier 15 in San Francisco. If you haven’t veen there, it’ll seem like a science center but you’ll quickly discover it’s really a place about learning, especially through direct experiences with art, tinkering, and phenomena (yep, that’s how they describe it).  It’s an incredibly active place (almost to the point of overwhelming) that seems to effectively engage its visitors, so I continually watch to see if any of their exhibits or ideas can be applied to historic sites or history museums.  During my latest visit, I found two exhibits that with a mild tweak could be really be innovative for interpreting history.

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1.  Question Bridge:  Black Males.  This temporary exhibit is, “comprised of many individuals asking and answering questions about the experience of black men in modern America.”  Inside the small dark room are Continue reading

The Emergency Response Wheel has Turned into a Mobile App

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Long known as the authoritative resource for salvaging artifacts after a disaster, the Emergency Response and Salvage (ERS) Wheel has been used by historic sites, museums, libraries, and archives around the world.  In partnership with the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, Heritage Preservation has turned the Wheel into a mobile application, providing invaluable guidance accessible to anyone who is in need of practical advice for saving collections in the first 48 hours after disaster strikes.

ERS app provides the same reliable content found in the original Wheel. The app outlines critical stages of disaster response and provides practical salvage tips for nine types of collections, from photographs to natural history specimens. ERS can help users protect precious collections and significant records, access reliable information instantly, and save damaged objects.

The “ERS: Emergency Response and Salvage” app is available free for Continue reading

Video: Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture

This short feature by BET includes an interview with director Lonnie Bunch, highlights of artifacts, and a computer-generated fly-through of the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture.  In honor of African American history month, I’ll be sharing other related videos on Fridays.

Montpelier Archaeologists Discover James Madison’s Threshing Machine

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The rich red clay at Montpelier, the Virginia home of the Father of the Constitution has given up more secrets: the remnants of James Madison’s barn and threshing machine, and evidence that Dolley’s son destroyed both in an attempt to remove the machine from Montpelier before the new owner took possession.

As archaeologists excavated the field slave quarters this summer, they found perplexing evidence they had to research and decipher. First, they found bits of iron that appeared to be pieces of machinery, which indicated that the building was used to house farming equipment. Then, in the soil layers below the iron pieces, they found a trench, which proved to be the outline of a 16-foot x 16-foot building. The trench also contained a set of postholes that held more iron pieces. “The iron and postholes in the trench tell us that the building was modified to allow a piece of machinery to be mounted inside the building,” said Dr. Matthew Reeves, Montpelier director of archaeology and landscape restoration.

More digging revealed bits of bone and ceramics, which indicate that Continue reading

Los Angeles to Host International Conference on Care and Interpretation of Collections in Historic Houses

Los Angeles is hosting a four-day international conference on the care and interpretation of collections in historic house museums on November 6-9, 2012 called, The Artifact, its Context, and their Narrative: Multidisciplinary Conservation in Historic House Museums.  A half dozen organizations are sponsoring and hosting the conference, including ICOM-DEMHIST (the international committee for historic house museums), three ICOM conservation working groups, the Getty Conservation Institute, Getty Research Institute, the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture/Heritage Conservation Program, and the Gamble House.  Historic sites encounter some of the most challenging preservation issues in the museum field because it is often impossible to maintain environmental conditions that are ideal for the collections, building, and visitors.  Indeed, some leaders in the field have wondered whether historic sites should be even considered museums because it establishes such an impossible standard.

The four-day conference consists of two days of site visits (such as the Gamble House, Huntington Library, Eames House, and Will Rogers Ranch) and two days of presentations and lectures.  Sarah Staniforth (National Trust UK) and Linda Young (Deakin University) will be providing broad overview presentations on the challenges and opportunities facing collections in historic sites, but most of the presentations are Continue reading

Boston MFA takes Flight with New American Wing

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The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, one of the great public museums established just after the Civil War, has recently opened “Art of the Americas,” a new wing filled with its outstanding collections of American fine and decorative arts.  As some of you know, the Boston MFA underwent a controversial restructuring more than a decade ago, shifting from departments organized by media (e.g., paintings, ceramics, furniture) to geography (e.g., Europe, Asia, and America) and firing some longtime curators (including Jonathan Fairbanks, who created the American Decorative Arts and Sculpture department at the MFA).  I’m assuming one of the results of this restructuring is “Art of the Americas.”  This four-story exhibit consists of 53 galleries tracing the history of art from pre-Columbian to Modern periods for the continents of North and South America, so along with the expected Chippendale chairs and Copley portraits, there are Peruvian funerary urns and Acoma pots.  It’s so large that it took me nearly three hours just to cruise through it at a walking pace and I didn’t make it to the fourth floor, which explored the 20th century.

Unlike most art museums, the exhibit mixes Continue reading

IMLS’ Revised Grant Guidelines Need Revision

In May, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)–the national agency devoted to museums and libraries–released a new set of proposed guidelines that would significantly revise their grant programs for museums (and that includes historic sites, historical societies, house museums, and preservation organizations).  Initially, these changes were proposed to go into effect without comment from the field, but fortunately enough museums spoke up that director Susan Hildreth changed her mind and announced she would welcome comments–but the comment period ends on Friday, July 6, 2012.

According to IMLS, the guidelines affect the Museums for America and National Leadership Grants for Museums programs, however, the impact is much larger because these programs are proposed to consume two other grant programs: Conservation Project Support and 21st Century Museum Professionals.  Claudia French, deputy director for museums, proposed the changes so that the grant programs would align better with the IMLS strategic plan and make it easier for grantees and IMLS staff.

Here are the major changes that caught my eye:

1.  One deadline to rule them all:  January 15.  Currently, the deadlines for Continue reading

Earthquake in Northern Italy destroys Historic Sites

The Town Hall in Sant’Agostino, Italy, damaged by Sunday’s earthquake.

On Sunday morning, the area near Bologna in northern Italy was struck by a major earthquake with aftershocks occurring today.  Damage to historic buildings is significant and about seven people have died.  Information is still coming in but the latest on CNN (with many photos) is:

Northern Italy was shaken by an aftershock Monday morning, a day after a magnitude-6.0 quake killed at least seven people and left thousands of survivors huddling in tents or cars overnight. Continue reading

A Collections Loan that Would Prompt a Career Change

The Farm by Joan Miro (1921-2).

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, holds “The Farm,” one of Joan Miro’s masterpieces and its provenance makes for a great story as told by Jim Conaway in “Getting the Picture” in the May 2012 issue of Washingtonian.  Here’s a glimpse into its complex history when the painting was owned by Ernest Hemingway and slated for an exhibition loan:

Alcohol–and his own vituperation–was catching up to Hemingway by 1959, when, then on his fourth and final wife, Mary, he agreed to loan “The Farm” to the Museum of Modern Art.  Hemingway was nervous about exposing the painting to the hostilities stirred by Fidel Castro’s revolution while trying to get it out of the country [Cuba].  He insisted that the museum insure “The Farm” and send an emissary to squire it back to New York, but no company would issue such a policy.

Hemingway finally agreed to let the museum’s emissary, David Vance, take the painting, but he ran into roadblocks:  Continue reading