Tag Archives: California

Video: Virtual researchers at work at Huntington Library

This 1:30 video features a video projected on a table showing scholars at work behind-the-scenes as part of a small exhibition on research and conservation at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. It was installed a few years ago in the former board room of the historic library building and is another example of the expanded ways that video is being used in exhibitions (it’s not just a tv monitor anymore).

You may notice that there’s no one in the exhibition. I do deliberately take photos of exhibitions without people so that the entire design can be seen, however, I also take them with people to show how they interact with the content. In this instance, it was a busy day but very few people wandered in and when they did, it was a quick glance and then back out–despite the cleverness of the video projection.  I can perhaps guess at the reasons—located off to the side, uninteresting topic, and passive experience—but it could also be a lost opportunity to do something more intriguing and distinctive.

Look again at the video. What’s distinctive about the exhibition? Continue reading

Are We Confusing Problems with Solutions?

AASLH workshop on historic house museums at the Homestead Museum in June 2018.

On June 11-12, George McDaniel and I led the AASLH workshop, “Historic House Museum Issues and Operations” at the Homestead Museum in California.  This was our 18th workshop and we open every one by asking the participants to share the biggest challenge facing their museum, which we revisit at the end to ensure we adequately addressed their issue.

In the latest workshop, a dozen participants provided this list:

  1. Irresponsible stewardship by the city despite local community support.
  2. Lost connection to the local community and parent organization.
  3. Relationship with the parent organization. Aging volunteer base.
  4. Shifting priorities, finding overarching vision with changing leadership and multiple stakeholders.
  5. Managing growth and change; coordinating mission and vision of the site. Relevance to people 20-35 years.
  6. Prioritizing a lot of maintenance and repair issues. Should the site become a house museum?
  7. Prioritizing issues and engaging volunteers to help (one person trying to do it all).
  8. Connecting to interests and needs of the local communities; being a service to the community.
  9. Increase recognition of the site’s significance and value to the community and open site to the public as a museum; ensure the preservation of site if sold to a developer (e.g., easements).
  10. How to grow volunteer program (older volunteers moving out; younger volunteers have different interests and needs; engaging new or different cultures in the local community)
  11. How to drive traffic into the museum.
  12. Outreach to new audiences (currently “oldtimers”; want to add underprivileged communities who don’t know the history of the area; make relevant to all residents, have ownership).
  13. Overcoming preconceptions of historic house museum and negative perceptions of history.
  14. Connecting to the needs and interests to the community through the collection (e.g., hot issues); get people excited about history and empowering them to care for their own collections (tangible pieces of history).

I’ve anonymized and reorganized the list so the participants aren’t identified and on further reflection, I’ve come to a few conclusions: 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?

Should Tour Guides be Tested and Certified?

tour-guide-antwerpAt the end of last month, the California Tour Guide Act (AB 836) died in committee in the California State Capitol. If it had passed, it would have established a “tour guide certification program” through the California Travel and Tourism Commission to test and certify persons who “practice tour guiding for compensation” (it would exempt guides who work at museums and amusement parks). The bill’s authors wanted to ensure that tourists “get the most of their visit and return to the Golden State.” It’s also a big business. According to the California Travel Association, the travel industry generated $106.4 billion in revenue from visitors and contributed $6.6 billion in state and local taxes in 2012. In 2013, California hosted nearly 16 million international visitors and is expected to grow at over 5 percent annually through 2016. To support this volume of visitors, nearly one million people work in the travel and tourism industry, including 3,000 tour guides.

We can debate various aspects of the proposed law, such as the $700,000 annual cost to manage the program or the need for a criminal background check, but I was more intrigued by the requirement that tour guides must have completed a “curriculum in California tour guiding and related subjects,” including “tour guide safety and California geography, history, and culture.”  How is that defined?  How is that evaluated?  The proposed law left the standards to Continue reading

Video: Long Beach Historical Society Cemetery Tour

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/107648495]

City TV produced this 4:10 video documenting the Historical Society of Long Beach cemetery tour (“where every plot has a story”). Started in 1995, the Historical Society conducts its annual living history tour at the city’s two oldest cemeteries on the Saturday before Halloween.  It attracts about 600 people each fall and according to one visitor, “It’s not weird at all. . . .It’s a cool place to spend an afternoon.”  Admission is $25, $15 for members, $8 for students.

Arts-and-Crafts Meets Machine at the Gamble House

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fans of the Gamble House, the Arts-and-Crafts masterpiece created by Greene and Greene in 1908, will either be thrilled or horrified this Halloween season.  The Machine Project has transformed the House during the Pasadena Art Council’s two-week AxS Curiosity Festival to reveal the history and visual ideas behind the historic site in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  Called the “Field Guide to The Gamble House,” it includes experimental tours and dances, group naps, operatic bird beaks, seances, videos, architectural lawn furniture and a secret Swiss-Japanese fusion restaurant. Complementing those live events, they’ve installed contemporary paintings and sculptures throughout the house to juxtapose today’s artistic ideas with 1908′s architectural style. On-site, hands-on workshops offer lessons in topics ranging from soap-making (a tribute to the family’s business) to solar robotics, from Craftsman-style cat houses to basic electronics, bringing the Arts and Crafts movement in parallel with today’s Maker groups.

Here’s a rundown of some of the events: 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.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

Video: 2014 NCPH Conference Recap

The Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso just produced a 2:49 video covering the 2014 annual conference of the National Council Public History in Monterey, California.   Using video from the conference and Monterey along with interviews, it highlights the value of the conference.  This was created by Karina Arroyo and Jesus Genaro Limon, who I believe are students at UTEP.  Perhaps your site could create something like this for your events or conferences with the help of a local college or university.  

Gamble House’s Clever and Attractive Sandwich Board

I have to admit that I’m the strange visitor at historic sites.  I not only take photos of the architecture and landscape, but reception desks, walkway paving, light fixtures, wheelchair ramps, and signs.  These are the things that make a visitor experience good, bad, or ugly, but they’re often overlooked and it’s hard to find good examples.

Gamble House Tour Menu Sign

Gamble House Tour Menu Sign

Here’s one from the Gamble House in Pasadena, California.  It’s a sandwich board placed on the driveway leading from the sidewalk to the garage, which now serves as the bookstore and admission desk.  The sign isn’t big, but the bright color and location makes it easy to spot from the sidewalk.  Visitors can comfortably learn about the options and then go inside the bookstore to buy their tickets.  Notice it’s called a “tour menu,” using familiar terms so that visitors quickly grasp the purpose of the sign.  The sign is placed outside in shady spot in front of the bookstore (those are the doors behind the sign).  The store is small and often busy so encouraging people to make their selection outside is much more comfortable, especially because these types of decisions are typically Continue reading