The ‘uncurated’ Christmas tree

Every time I drive west down Duke Street past Landmark Mall (towards 395), I am cheered and comforted by the sight of an eclectically decorated ‘Christmas tree’ growing out of the sidewalk by the overpass to the Mall.

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Photo by David Konigsberg

This tree has become a fixture in my mind—a landmark, in fact. Over the past several months, it seems to have cycled through several rounds of very creative decorating—undertaken, I assume, by members of the community.

Lately, the tree has gotten me thinking about museum participation and the varying degrees to which visitor participation is shaped and refined by the museum.

While I love the collaborative museum-visitor model where the museum uses its expertise to guide visitors’ contributions, the tree reminds me that the spontaneous, grassroots, ‘uncurated’ (nothing is entirely uncurated, but you get the idea) approach to creative participation might have some merit.

The tree also reminds me of my own childhood experiences decorating the family Christmas tree. My mom, early childhood educator and committed proponent of unbridled childhood creativity, always insisted that my brothers and I be 100% in charge of decorating the Christmas tree. She encouraged us to start leading this project from a very early age so you can imagine how special our Christmas trees looked as we were growing up: a massive clump of tinsel here; a scribbled, original paper ornament there; a concentration of decorations on the lower portion of the tree where our short arms could reach—nothing like the composed and visually balanced trees that we saw at our friends’ houses. But we loved our trees and were always proud of them.

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Me and my late grandmother by our Christmas tree.

The urge to ‘correct’ the work of someone we see as less ‘qualified’ can be so tempting as to be almost automatic, especially in the case of young children. The drive for appealing and organized aesthetics is also powerful, and understandable. I’m sure some people drive down Duke Street and have to actively resist the urge to pull over and ‘fix’ the muddled assortment of random adornments on our community, year-round, sidewalk Christmas tree.

However, I think we might consider what we are sacrificing when we ‘edit’ someone’s participatory effort. The opportunity to see or learn something new from someone else, the opportunity to be impetuous and to proceed without a plan, and the opportunity to facilitate unmitigated ownership, self-esteem, and pride are just a few possible losses.

I am curious to hear from other museum professionals on this subject. Have you ever offered your visitors an (almost) entirely blank slate upon which to create something for the museum? If so, how did it work out? Did you learn something? Did visitors receive something valuable? Or was the result too jumbled and disconnected to be of value?

Several weeks ago, I dropped in on the DC Arts Center and saw an interesting effort at an uncurated community exhibit: the Center’s annual 1460 Wall Mountables exhibit for which the 1,460 square feet of gallery wall space is made available to community artists wishing to claim a 2’ by 2’ square to personally install their work. When I visited I saw only the blocked out walls and I am still yet to return to see the resulting exhibit, but I’m curious about the wonderful potentials of this laissez-faire, institutionally-detached approach.

When I was in college, I took a course on the topic of play. For one class session, we were let loose on a local day care center and invited to play, create, and display in any way that we chose using the materials provided. One particular room was my favorite; an eclectic mix of natural and found objects along with an open floorspace provided the opportunity to build, collaborate, and dramatize in unlimited ways—both lasting and ephemeral (creations could be left behind or broken down and absorbed into others’ work).

Perhaps I am being overly idealistic in considering the potentials of such randomness and disorganization in the museum, a place revered for its ability to cultivate the exact opposite environment. And maybe, not everyone finds an ‘uncurated’ Christmas tree quite so charming as I do.

However, I still remember what it felt like to work with those materials in that very unique class activity back in college: scary at first, but then therapeutic and very, very satisfying.

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Museums, a way in to doubt?

Poet Jane Hirshfield’s hopeful insights into the role of poetry in helping to solve big social problems make a powerful case for the public celebration of uncertainty and nuance in the world.

I didn’t realize until my Memorial Day visits to Freer|Sackler and Hirshhorn Museum that the museum can also be a crucial ‘way in’ to uncertainty, and healthy doubt.

Like Hirshfield’s compelling argument in favor of poetry, museums are texts of doubt and ambiguity, of complexity and abundant gray area. This is one of their greatest strengths, and a possible asset to be leveraged in their emerging quest to contribute to social justice.

Hirshfield says ‘poetry is an antidote to fundamentalism.’ Museums too are particularly adept at offering more questions than answers, and reminding us just how much we haven’t yet considered. This sense of ourselves as social and intellectual ‘works in progress’ is a beautiful thing, and a potential way for museum experiences to help gradually heal social ills.

Doubt, I think, is an important precursor to empathy—which is a hot topic in the museum field today, and a difficult and skillful undertaking, for anyone. Empathy requires both the ability to connect with personal experiences by searching for similarity and shared meaning, and the ability to suspend assumption and be willing to expand or revise an existing understanding of human experience. This latter task requires you to doubt what you already think that you know about human emotion so that you are open to the complexities of someone else’s reality.

Great museum exhibits and programs unsettle our inherent dogmas, shake us down, and confront us with nuance and difference. This is one place where empathy could live and thrive in the museum. How do we, as museum professionals, work with the doubt and incompleteness that exists within all topics—science, art, history—to support healthy, empathetic communities?

‘Poems also create larger fields of possibilities,’ Hirshfield continues. Similarly, a great museum visit conveys a profound sense of incompleteness and therefore, potential. Ordinarily, we associate doubt and uncertainty with anxiety and fear. However, in the relative safety of the museum, experiencing one’s worldview as incomplete and nascent is actually quite therapeutic. It leaves you feeling less constrained.

Sometimes, the museum experience can border on absurd, and this too is helpful because it helps us reimagine notions of ordinariness and normality, and think more broadly.

A museum visit shouldn’t make you feel stupid (see my previous post about empowering exhibitions) nor should it provoke anxiety, but it shouldn’t make you feel infallible either.

Doubt inspires an unsettled and motivated curiosity. I’m reminded of David Carr’s recent remarks at Smithsonian Libraries during which he contended, ‘it is thinking, not “learning,” that makes us different.’ Learning, I think, implies something much more finite that what museums can really offer. Thinking, however, requires only the spark of an idea (or a doubt) and can then become a lifelong process.

For regular people living thoughtful, complex, authentic lives, Carr contends, ‘Knowledge of the museum kind is best when it helps such people over time to be more engaged, more curious, more empathetic, and more reflective; less judgmental; more aware of the fragile; and less afraid of ambiguity.’

Ambiguity is never more ubiquitous or celebrated than in the contemporary art museum (as I was reminded during my recent visit to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden). Many people are frustrated by the museum’s apparent refusal to clearly answer the question, ‘What does it mean?’ Yet, visitors are drawn in anyway—by the mystery and by the refreshing contact with something that isn’t necessarily complete or certain.

Even the most seemingly small mental ‘resets’ and moments of intellectual revision or confusion can feel pretty great, and probably work to counteract harmful ‘certainty’ on a larger scale.

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is currently showing Peacock Room REMIX, an exhibition by Darren Waterston, which reimagines James McNeill Whistler’s iconic Peacock Room (on display at Freer Gallery of Art) through its centerpiece work, Filthy Lucre. Filthy Lucre recreates the Peacock Room, and depicts it as a kind of decaying palace. Its surprising vibrancy and energy caused me to see the original Peacock Room in a very different light. Suddenly, the original room seemed static, quiet, and slightly dulled, yet also more authentic and real than the almost cartoonish Filthy Lucre. I’m now quite uncertain how I feel about the Peacock Room; what I think, what I feel, and what I imagine have been thrown into revision by the remixed version.

The remixing of ideas in the museum is therefore a valuable source of doubt, and intellectual revision. And museum exhibitions and programs might consider how they can nurture doubt and nuance within their audiences—by reframing concepts (as in the Peacock Room REMIX), by igniting questions, and by appropriately conveying the challenge (and reward) of true empathy.

Burns, C. (2015, May 13). A famous poet explains how great verse can help solve big social problems (and reads you a poem!)The Washington Post. 

Carr, D. (2015, February 26). Questions for an Open Cultural Institution: Thinking Together in Provocative PlacesSmithsonian Libraries.

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

 

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)