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

 

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The self-guided personal response tour

Inspiration 

Ray Williams’ (2010) article, ‘Honoring the Personal Response: A Strategy for Serving the Public Hunger for Connection’ made a case for art museums to assume profound relevance to individual lives.

I first encountered the article while completing my master’s thesis and immediately noticed that Williams’ proposal was reminiscent of my initial stirrings of professional interest in museums.

Williams’ (2010) ‘Personal Response’ tour invites participants to find museum works that resonate with special questions; the questions are designed to invite reflection and connect to personal experience.

Recently, I was reminded of the personal response tour by Shannon Karol’s post on DMA Canvas, which explored its use in promoting teambuilding and reflection among museum docents. Further research revealed the potential use of personal response tours for training medical students in empathy and self-awareness (see Gaufberg & Williams, 2011). I was intrigued by the versatility of the personal response and wanted to know more.

Why do we only look outside ourselves?

Museums often focus heavily on the cultural and historical context of works, under-utilizing the broad and powerful potential of art to serve the community, Williams (2010) argued.

In her post about Art is Therapy at the Rijksmuseum, Robin Matty articulated a similar idea after exploring the exhibition’s atypically personal approach to art, explaining ‘the standard art exhibit label doesn’t always mean much to the visitor’ (Robin Matty, The Traveling Museologist).

Traditional interpretative labels often imply we must look to external resources to understand and enjoy the displays.

But visitors’ personal histories can add immediacy to the visitor experience and contribute new richness and depth to the original works or objects, creating potentially useful resources for the museum and for other visitors.

My personal response experience 

I put together a short list of prompts to try out during a visit to one of my favorite D.C. museums, The Phillips Collection. Below are some of my highlights:

1. Find a work that makes you laugh: People who know each other at a party by Michael Schaff (Acrylic paint and colored pencil on construction paper, exhibited in Art and Wellness: Creative Aging) … Something about this slightly abstract, slightly disordered, and slightly absurd party scene delighted me, and made me laugh.

2. Find a work that, for you, embodies courage: The Migration Series, Panel no. 13: The crops were left to dry and rot. There was no one to tend them. by Jacob Lawrence (between 1940 and 1941, Casein tempera on hardboard, exhibited in The Migration Series) … When I discovered the title of this work, I realized that my interpretation was probably a little different than what Jacob Lawrence intended. Nevertheless, I found the work beautiful and empowering. Something about a focus on light …

3. Find a work that embodies love: The Dream by Marc Chagall (1939, Gouache on paper, permanent collection) … For me, this work was both domestically ordinary and dreamily surreal.

What I learned about personal responses in the museum

A personal response tour allows you to follow your own instincts and intrinsic interests when choosing what displays to seek out and focus on.

Formal, structured tours (while wonderful in their own way) can at times feel like a trip to the mall with someone who does not share your particular retail proclivities. Instead of looking closely at something that captivates you, you are compelled to focus on whatever the guide has chosen to focus on (or, to return to my shopping analogy, to feign interest in cooking gadgets for hours on end because that’s what your husband likes to shop for).

This self-directed quality does not preclude the personal response tour from being social; in fact, it opens up many possibilities for discussion and empathy. Seeing another’s perspective through the lens of a work or object may offer a more nuanced picture of that person’s unique experience. The personal response approach may also offer a powerful way of mentally logging and storing new knowledge.

These moments we share with a work can ignite curiosity and a desire to learn more. My sudden and intense love affair with Marc Chagall’s The Dream while visiting The Phillips primed me to later connect with another of his works, Composition, on a recent visit to The Kreeger Museum. The personal response is akin to an ‘emotional souvenir,’ creating continuity in the visitor experience and extending it beyond the time and space of the visit.

Finally, collections are both the lifeblood of the personal response, and the great asset of the museum. Therefore, museums may be uniquely situated to promote empathy, self-care, and sharing in this way.

Exhibition idea …

As I finish this post, I am arriving at what I think could be an interesting exhibition idea incorporating the personal response. The exhibition would encourage visitors to record their personal responses to the particular artworks or objects (perhaps on post-its?) and affix them beside the relevant pieces. Subsequent visitors could respond to either the work alone or the preceding visitor responses.

This would build on the concept of Art is Therapy at the Rijksmuseum, as discussed in Robin Matty’s post, by adding a new layer of interpersonal sharing and active participation. The exhibition would seamlessly coalesce participation, co-curation, and interpretation.

Reflecting on recent events in Ferguson 

Could the ‘personal response’ approach to interpreting museum objects provide some direction for museums striving to serve their communities in times of grief or trauma?

Your experiences

If anyone feels subsequently inspired to try a self-guided personal response tour I would love to hear from you. Also, if you discover any amazing prompts, please let me know.

(You could try this at ANY exhibition. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE AN ART EXHIBIT.)

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The curators of Investigating Where We Live (currently on display at the National Building Museum) shared their personal reflections about community and place and invited visitors to do the same.

References

Gaufberg, E. & Williams, R. (2011). Reflection in a museum setting: The Personal Responses Tour. Journal of Graduate Medical Education, 3(4), 546-549. doi: 10.4300/JGME-D-11-00036.1

Williams, R. (2010). Honoring the personal response: A strategy for serving the public hunger for connection. Journal of Museum Education, 35(1), 93-101. doi: 10.1179/jme.2010.35.1.93