The changing conversations of Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series

If you’ve ever seen Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (as I did recently) or stumbled upon the recently popular Tumblr page, What They See, you may have entertained the idea of museum objects as living entities with voices, opinions, and physical vantage points.

If so, you are well situated to appreciate one of the key curatorial principles of The Phillips Collection, explained as follows by founder, Duncan Phillips: ‘I bring together congenial spirits among the artists from different parts of the world and from different periods of time’ (quoted here on Experiment Station). The practice of acquainting diverse artworks with one another to allow new relationships to emerge is a ‘hallmark’ of the museum, Gallery Educator, Ellen Stedtefeld, elaborated in the post.

During a recent visit to the Phillips with fellow museum blogger, Caitlin Kearney (check out her blog, Museum A Week), I was struck by the value of this approach for displaying works with powerful and enduring social relevance—such as permanent collection favorite, The Migration Series (1940-41) by Jacob Lawrence.

Lawrence’s The Migration Series chronicles the large-scale northward migration of southern African Americans between the two world wars; the 60 panel series is divided between The Phillips Collection (which holds the odd-numbered works) and the Museum of Modern Art (which holds the even-numbered works) (see website).

As Dr. Celeste-Marie Bernier (African American Studies scholar) highlighted for me during a related lecture earlier in 2014, The Migration Series acts, in some ways, as historical record and memorial. Through this helpful lens, I see the series as a key artistic contribution towards greater social justice and historical empathy.

This visit was my third time viewing Lawrence’s Migration Series. Over this fourteen-month period of visiting the Phillips, exhibitions and displays have come and gone and The Migration Series has moved upstairs. So I have essentially seen three different iterations of Duncan Phillips’ ‘congenial spirits’ approach to displaying these works; that is, I have seen the series in three different relational and conversational contexts.

When I visited in December 2013, The Migration Series was being displayed ‘in conversation’ with Pakistani Voices, a body of work created through outreach workshops in Pakistan in which artists, students, educators, and museum professionals collaboratively developed artworks inspired by The Migration Series, and in a similar spirit of visual storytelling (see website).

When Lawrence’s panels were allowed to converse and connect with Pakistani Voices, the works took on a kind of universal and intercultural quality. They appeared more as distinct entities and less as a series as they empathized across physical space and culture. They assumed an educative role, with traces of Lawrence’s forthright, bold use of color and shape evident among the Pakistani Voices’ works. The conversations between these two series brought to mind shared human experience.

When I returned to the museum in November 2014, The Migration Series had moved to another floor alongside several exhibits including A Tribute to Anita Reiner, an exhibition honoring and showcasing the efforts of intrepid art collector, Anita Reiner. This time, I saw Lawrence’s works as a more clearly defined set, telling a powerfully cohesive story. Thinking back on The Migration Series in conversation with Ms Reiner’s eclectic, passionate, and open-minded collecting style evokes ideas about ‘the artist’ including the importance of supporting artists and the valuable role of arts supporters such as Ms Reiner. Retroactively reflecting on these possible connections is an interesting and valuable process.

Last week, I was fortunate to see The Migration Series presented alongside a selection from another of Lawrence’s series, a small exhibition titled Struggle…from the History of the American People. The Struggle series is aesthetically distinct from The Migration Series, something that immediately intrigued me and sparked interesting later discussion with Caitlin. Seeing these two distinct sets of works (by the same artist) in conversation with one another highlighted Lawrence’s versatility and intentionality. Consequently, the aesthetic qualities of The Migration Series seemed more deliberate and impactful, with a very authoritative narrative voice.

Have you seen The Migration Series in conversation with a different work or exhibition from the ones that I detail here? How did you experience Jacob Lawrence’s powerful storytelling when brought into conversation with a work or collection from a different artist, time, place, or style?

Have you ever noticed works or objects conversing within a gallery space, either during your visit or upon later reflection? Did these conversations influence your experience and your learning?

Based on my own experiences, I am curious about the role of Duncan Phillips’ curatorial approach for works with strong social relevance. Seeing the way that Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series interacted with diverse works (including some of his own) provided new ways of seeing and understanding the social importance of the works—i.e. for advancing intercultural understanding, for promoting the artist and the important social role of art, and for better understanding the artist’s aesthetic intentions.

An upcoming exhibition at MoMA, One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North, will reunite all 60 works in the series. After their long separation (and their time spent in the company of other works), I imagine they will have a lot to say to one another—and to their audience.

from The Migration Series - Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence – “Panel no. 13: The crops were left to dry and rot. There was no one to tend them.” © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Museums and the pure joy of learning

The impact of museums on me 

I began this blog project to learn about museum practice and explore how I might contribute to the museum field. I was excited to explore D.C.’s cultural offerings and consider possible connections between museums, wellbeing, and social service.

Of course, I expected to learn a lot about museum practice. But I was less prepared for the immense casual learning (about art history, art practice, architecture, conservation, history) that my visits would inspire and the happiness this would bring me.

A month ago, I shared this sentiment on Twitter:

Then last week, with my mother visiting from Australia, I had a good excuse to visit several museums without focusing particularly on their relevance to the blog—and my thoughts about museums and the joy of learning crystalized enough for me to write this post. In short, I realized how much my museum expeditions have changed me for the better.

Through my desire to better understand visitor participation, I have become a more avid participator. These days, I can hardly walk past an interactive display, response prompt, or activity without engaging in some way. Along with this heightened interest in participation has come a newfound playfulness and desire to relate. Suddenly, I see opportunities to engage that I would not previously have noticed.

My initially-perfunctory effort to document my visits and provide visuals for the blog through photography has evolved into a genuine quest for beauty, intrigue, and new ways of seeing:

My phone (with its camera) is never far from my reach these days, and I don’t feel like I’m missing any real moments—something I admit I used to see as a reason for not taking photographs.

I have rediscovered some of my childlike awe, most recently, in the stunning presence of Richard Estes’ Realism at Smithsonian American Art Museum, an exhibition that had me continually running over to my companion (my mum, in this case) to point out particular works. I have also experienced a greater willingness to try new things and a deeper interest in ‘process’ and ‘experience.’ For example, I am increasingly eager to attempt art practice as a window into museum programs and collections.

Sketching Rodin's The Age of Bronze at the National Gallery of Art's Drawing Salon

Sketching Rodin’s The Age of Bronze at the National Gallery of Art’s Drawing Salon

While I admit I do tend to gravitate towards art museums, the blog project has helped me expand my horizons, prompting genuine interest in subjects such as architecture, urban planning, and horticulture.

I’m intrigued by these intangible museum visit outcomes, which relate less to specific facts learned and more to the emotional and identity outcomes that learning can inspire. Have you ever experienced emotional or identity outcomes in the museum, including experiences, interests, and realizations that helped you grow? If so, what were they? Museum professionals, do you ever plan for visitors to experience these kinds of outcomes? Have they ever emerged unexpectedly from your evaluations as ‘unanticipated outcomes’ (Stephanie Downey, Intentional Museum)?

This month, as I begin seriously searching for museum employment and volunteer opportunities (work permit in hand at last), I feel grateful to be striving towards a career that will afford me so many opportunities to learn, enquire, feel amazed, and develop myself.

For an aspiring museum professional, the opportunity to attend numerous museum exhibitions and programs has been a gift—and an important part of my professional and emotional education. I believe that all museum professionals and museum studies students should make time for this pursuit, and employers and academic programs should encourage and support this important process.

The opportunity to write has also been important for me, professionally and personally. Writing the blog has brought forth a more candid and expressive and less reserved side of me that has been valuable as I seek to learn from others and exchange ideas.

I look forward to continuing my blog project, and my ongoing personal education.

Enjoying museum architecture through photography while passing by Library of Congress

Enjoying museum architecture through photography while passing by the Library of Congress

The empowering exhibition

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s current exhibit, Days of Endless Time, promises to explore themes of nature, solitude, and escape through moving image works that attenuate and suspend time or evoke timelessness (see website) so when I visited with my mum last Wednesday, I expected any resulting blog post to focus on the exhibition’s meditative qualities. Unexpectedly, I was drawn down another path.

But let me begin by recounting my initial impressions and subsequent thought process…

Upon entering the exhibit, I was struck by the dark gray walls, which contributed a complex energy into the space, reducing one’s visibility in the gallery and invoking a sense of greater privacy and seclusion. I immediately noted that the exhibition suspended not only time, but also expectation. As in Divergence, I noticed a recurring narrative of duality and contrast (with fluidity between opposing or contrasting ideas); movement/stillness, sound/silence, object/shadow, small/large, nature/man, creation/destruction all inhered and enmeshed throughout my visit.

The works evoked a kind of ‘unreality’ that was, at least for me, strangely acceptable and beautiful, even peaceful. The exhibit reminded me of the potential for museums to connect to a spiritual dimension or an augmented version of reality—and to be deeply seductive. My experience was somewhat reminiscent of my experience at Glenstone (see post) in that I felt restored (even energized) afterwards rather than fatigued. My mum, Kathy, astutely commented upon leaving that she felt slower, but not tired.

The experience was certainly therapeutic, but the complete reason why eluded me until the next morning when I read this essay by Axel Huttinger, posted by Paul Orselli on his blog, ExhibiTricks. Axel’s argument that exhibitions should motivate a desire to learn by providing ‘a sense of security and a certain amount of self-confidence’ got me pondering the concept of an empowering exhibition: an exhibition that offers security and supports self-efficacy.

I use the word ‘self-efficacy’ (a concept developed by psychologist, Albert Bandura) rather than self-esteem because, as my sister-in-law recently reminded me, self-efficacy describes your belief that you can do something, a similar notion to Axel’s assertion that exhibitions should convey to visitors ‘that they have understood, or can understand something’ (Axel Huttinger, ExhibiTricks).

Unhurried and undidactic, Days of Endless Time offers visitors a strong and pervasive sense of control and security by introducing concepts gently and with restraint and by limiting factual content. This experience supports viewers’ authority and encourages their confident engagement; one person’s experience or interpretation is as valid as the next’s. Also, many of the works seem to offer flexible entry and exit points for viewing and understanding them.

My mum later told me that she had first looked at each moving image to ascertain her own organic interpretation and only later considered the label if she was left wanting more information. In many cases, she was satisfied with her self-produced knowledge and sought no further explanation. The exhibition’s capacity to accommodate this confident, self-guided approach struck me as an empowering opportunity for self-made discovery.

Days of Endless Time invites a kind of investigative approach in which patience, curiosity, and a contemplative mind yield great reward. It seems to strive towards Axel’s idea of the exhibition as a ‘public laboratory, in which the visitors themselves become researchers and scientists’ (Axel Huttinger, ExhibiTricks).

Museums are places where ideas inhabit space—and you, as the visitor, are invited to co-exist in that space. Exhibitions that present mountains of information with little option to select ‘out’ may be alienating and tiring—even intimidating. Contrastingly, exhibitions that make you feel smart, receptive, capable, calm, and in control may be enormously empowering.

What do you think?

Mum and I enjoyed our own experience of the vastness of nature getting across the snowy Mall.

Mum and I enjoyed an apt prelude to the exhibition as we braved the snowy weather to get to the Museum.

Huttinger, A. (2015, January 6). What is innovative exhibition design? [Blog post]. ExhibiTricks. (See Axel’s company website)

Dropping in on museums

On the Monday before Christmas, I decided to combat pre-holiday restlessness with a somewhat impromptu visit to the Freer and Sackler Galleries to see their (relatively new) exhibition, The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia.

I am starting to think of the Freer|Sackler as an old friend, someone I can drop in on casually when I’m bored, or unsettled, or somehow in need. Fittingly, my first visit (back in 2008) began when my mum and I stumbled through the Freer Gallery doors desperately seeking refuge from the scorching D.C. summer day outside.

I am truly fortunate to live in a city with so many free, conveniently-located cultural refuges. Providing a cultural space where visitors can enter easily, cheaply, and regularly is a powerful community service and one that I feel more museums might strive to facilitate and augment, if possible. This is one way that a museum could, if it made sense for the particular institution, become more like a park (see my past post on the subject).

Every museum is inevitably restricted by physical and geographical constraints and limited resources. However, I wonder how museums might augment what they already have to make themselves community spaces that support casual, drop-in visits. If a museum or exhibit can’t offer free admission, what are some other ways it can reduce barriers to entry and encourage regular, spontaneous visitation? I’ve noticed that many museums offer free admission days. Also, lunch-time museum programs seem like a great way to provide value and regularly varied content.

Here’s another thought: Could museums offer month-long passes, or multi-visit passes? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could return to something you enjoyed, or split a museum’s galleries into multiple short visits, or return to a favorite exhibit with a friend—without having to pay for admission a second time? Perhaps this option would increase visitation without reducing admissions revenue? Does a market (beyond me) exist for such options?

Museums that are set up to support short, casual visits seem particularly child and family-friendly. The pressure (on caregivers) to make the visit meaningful and successful is possibly alleviated by the knowledge that they can easily come back another day. And if things go really well, then the ability to return easily becomes an opportunity to re-visit favorite displays or show them to other family members!

Based on my experience leading outings (both as a nanny and a support worker), free or ‘no-fuss’ exhibits and programs definitely feel more accessible than paid ones, and can frequently be undertaken more spontaneously.

Which museums do you frequent, and what museum qualities make this possible? Do you see value in drop-in style or narrowly focused visits? What might be the role of design in supporting these visits? In my experience, the museums with which you develop these kinds of relationships are lifelong companions, fondly remembered and indelibly imprinted on your experience. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of the Johnson Museum of Art, the many times I used the art to help my language students practice their English, and the peaceful times I spent looking out over my college campus from the fifth floor gallery.