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?
On my first day on the road, I made my first stop just after an hour in Hagerstown, Maryland to see the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. Set in a county park near its historic downtown, it has a surprisingly fine collection of American and European art from 17th to 19th century. Exemplary portraits by the Peale family, bronze sculptures by Rodin, vases by Tiffany and Lalique, and pots by George Ohr are found among its collections of 7,000 objects–that’s small compared to most art museums. Along with displaying their collections, they also organize temporary exhibitions, such as one on Joshua Johnson (ca. 1763-1824) of Baltimore, the first professional African-American painter. Anna Brugh Singer and her husband William H. Singer, Jr. (heirs to a family fortune, not of sewing machine fame) established the museum in the 1931 after they had traveled the world.
More interesting, however, was my discussion with board president Roger Fairbourn and curator Daniel Fulco about the vision of the museum. It’s clear they don’t want to collect more to become another Metropolitan Museum of Art, but they do plan to grow. They are hosting more ambitious traveling exhibitions, such as the current one on 17th century Italian paintings. They are adding more facilities for education, but that’s in response to community interest. They are expanding their collections, but it is to diverse their American art by including under-represented stories and move further into the 20th century. They also recognize their primary audience is the surrounding four counties, not tourists. Their strengths are uncommon and a refreshing change from the usual bigger-is-better, get-more-tourists mentality that usually infests the minds of museums. This is a tough position to take because it goes against the usual metrics, in this case, smaller is better.
Another surprise: a board president who can explain the history of the museum, its vision for the future, and discuss the significance of the current exhibition. I happened to run into him accident, when he caught me taking photos outside and stopped to chat. When I expressed my interest in the history and management of the museum, he took me around to the side of the museum to explain the physical evolution of the building, then took me inside to talk about the exhibitions and their vision. While we were chatting, he noticed another visitor was puzzled by the Johnson exhibition, so he stopped to describe its significance and pointed out a painting that might interest her. And he didn’t do it by flaunting his position at the museum (he just introduced himself as Roger). What!? If anyone on your board of trustees can do this, you’re in luck. Most can’t.
Visiting these small art museums verifies that small history museums, which dominant the field, can be effective and worthy organizations. They just need to develop a vision that pursues impact on their audience rather than size of collections or attendance.
Museum studies students learning QGIS in GW’s Museums and Community Engagement course.
Closing out my first semester as a professor in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University was inspirational. Graduation was perhaps the culmination of the students’ achievements, but it was also seen in their final products in the three courses I taught. I always aim to give them a major project that provides a real-world experience, such as completing an Organizational Assessment report from AAM’s Museum Assessment Program (MAP). In the “Museums and Community Engagement” class, the final assignment is a community engagement plan but it was done in partnership with several local museums, creating a mutually-beneficial relationship.
Amanda Figueroa and Ravon Ruffin giving the keynote at the Small Museum Association conference, 2017.
Robert Folorny listening to Gretchen Jennings presentation at the Small Museum Association conference, 2017.
Callie Hawkins and Andrea Jones at the Small Museum Association conference, 2017.
Liz Shatto receiving an award from the Small Museum Association conference, 2017.
Some of the people who lead the Small Museum Association conference, 2017.
Chinese art among the meeting rooms at the Small Museum Association conference, 2017.
For the first time, College Park, Maryland hosted the annual Small Museum Association conference, which was previously held for decades in Ocean City, Maryland (a seaside resort town where the rooms are cheap in winter). The relocation was controversial but it attracted a record attendance of 315 persons, plus the facilities at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center were much better suited for a national conference. Not only were there a nice assortment of rooms and places to meet (not just for sessions but informal chats) but it features an outstanding art collection from the University of Maryland in its hallways, not the usual hotel pablum. Paintings and sculptures mostly by Maryland artists lined the hallways and in their own galleries, curated by Jon West-Bey (formerly at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum). Were we in a hotel? a conference center? a museum?
While some people might assume that a conference for small museums means that it’s for beginners, you’ll find that like most professional conferences it has a variety of sessions for different levels of experience, except that it’s aimed at institutions that have a small staff and budget. Flexibility and speed are among the characteristic advantages of small museums, who sometimes forget they can innovate much faster than their bigger brethern. Some quick highlights from the education sessions I attended are: Continue reading →
A common and contentious management issue for museums and historic sites is the the role and responsibilities of board members and the staff. Frequent complaints I’ve heard are that board members are interfering in staff projects or lack interest in their role as leaders, or that staff is withholding crucial information from the board or is unable to make progress on major goals. Navigating these concerns requires a good hand on the tiller by both the executive director and board chair, but I’ve also found that a facilitated group discussion about roles and responsibilities is often just as effective.
In my years of service on several different boards, each was at a different place in their organizational development, which means the roles and responsibilities was different as well. An all-volunteer start-up organization operates differently from one with a large staff and a long-established set of activities. Boards are not all the same.
Board members also require orientation and training, which rarely happens. There doesn’t seem to be Continue reading →
James Singewald, is photographing and researching ten historic streets in Baltimore for his project, Baltimore: A History Block by Block. This 4:30 video explains his project and presents a series of his photographs that show the rich variety of architecture that survives (and may be soon demolished) and is raising funds for 4×5 film, processing, research, and publication on Kickstarter. It’s a great way to raise funds to research and document historic neighborhoods, and he’d appreciate your support with a gift of $10 or more (he’s raised nearly half of his expenses with 65 backers). Singewald received his MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art abd is currently the imaging services technician at the Maryland Historical Society> He funded his previous book, Old Town, East Baltimore, in 2010 through Kickstarter.
For this workshop, they assembled an outstanding team of speakers:
Tom Mayes of the National Trust for Historic Preservation discussing a “shamelessly anecdotal and personal approach” to historic sites that prompted questions about why people visit (or avoid visiting) them
Visiting Annapolis a few weeks ago, I had a chance to see the nearly completed installation ofFreedom Bound: Runaways of the Chesapeake, a year-long exhibit about the resistance to servitude and slavery in the Chesapeake Bay region from the colonial period to the Civil War. Heather Ersts and Ariane Hofstedt of the Historic Annapolis Foundation graciously provided a personal tour of the exhibit, which is installed in several museums and historic sites around the city. It’s an exhibit worth seeing not only for the content, but also the design, and several items jumped out at me:
1. The exhibit looks at the varied experiences of people through nine persons. Seven of these persons were enslaved Africans, but two are white–a convict servant and an indentured servant–which will surprise most visitors. It complicates the usual narrative that only Africans were held in bondage (of course, being owned as a slave is very different from being incarcerated as a convict) and it’s by encountering the unexpected that people are more likely to learn. The typical exhibit about slavery trots out the same 1850 drawing of the slave ship Brooks, a pair of iron shackles, and perhaps a tag from Charleston. Yes, those are all authentic and true, but the constant repeat of these items renders them Continue reading →
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 →
WebWise, the annual conference hosted by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, will be held in Baltimore on March 6-8, 2013. This year’s conference is co-sponsored by the Roy Rosensweig Center for History and the New Media and is being organized and presented in a very different manner. In advance, participants (anyone, actually) voted on the proposed workshop topics and then the conference organizers recruit speakers to fill the slots. For the project demonstrations, the participants will be divided into three groups and then rotate through three different sets of presentations. In addition, there will be a series of three-minute lightning talks over lunch, facilitated project/partnership incubator groups, and one-on-one speed consulting sessions. Indeed, there’s only one plenary session scheduled for the entire conference–Audrey Watters of Hack Education–as a keynote on the last day.
I’ve attended as many WebWise Conferences as possible because the content has been outstanding and I often come away with new approaches and strategies, even from the sessions that are far outside my field. This year’s reformatting seems intriguing, but much of the content remains a mystery so Continue reading →