20150725_113143I’m in Italy! This is my first ever post on my phone so it’s going to be very very short, and hopefully sweet. Here is a picture of the House of the Little Owls.

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Even WordPress Has a Rainbow on Top of the Screen as I Write This

I don’t have much to say right at this moment, but I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t make a note of this day. Today is a day for the history books and the museum exhibits of the future. Happy equality! May today’s victory help inspire all the progress that is still to come.

Two years and three months ago: rallying at the Supreme Court for marriage equality on March 26, 2013

Two years and three months ago: rallying at the Supreme Court for marriage equality on March 26, 2013

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Games and Excitement at White Flint

It is actually somewhat difficult to find something to say about things to do near the White Flint Metro Station, since it seems that most of the few reasons I have ever gone there have disappeared.

There used to be the Vegetable Garden, the wonderful all-vegan restaurant that has since relocated to a non-Metro-accessible location.

There also used to be the White Flint Mall. Having become a symbol for the demise of the suburban mall phenomenon, this particular mall announced in late 2013 that it would close and the land would be redeveloped. Stores closed throughout 2014, and the demolition is starting right about now. At this point, the space that was once the White Flint Mall is slated to become apartments, a hotel, and public green space.

Now-shuttered White Flint Mall as seen in December 2013

Now-shuttered White Flint Mall as seen in December 2013

When I explored the mall in December 2013, it seemed that half the store spaces were vacant. Poinsettias surrounded a central staircase and elevator, but there was no sign of any Santa Claus ready for a photo-op.

During that visit, I went to Dave and Buster’s, a chain restaurant/sportsbar/arcade. (As a business on the highest story of the mall, this franchisee is now gone.) While I was not able to find anything like a museum near the White Flint Metro, Dave and Buster’s offered an activity, a thing to do – a place to play video games, skee ball, and other coin-operated games. These arcade games were presented as entertainment at Dave and Buster’s, but can they also be considered art?

A dozen stops away from White Flint on the Red Line is the Galleryplace-Chinatown-Verizon Center Metro Station, with one of its entrances right outside the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which has shown a pinball machine and video games in art exhibits.

In 2009, SAAM put on the exhibit What’s It All Mean: William T. Wiley in Retrospect, which included a pinball machine created by the artist. The pinball machine was available for play and use by the public at specified times, but it was not just there for amusement; it also contained a political message. As Abby Callard wrote in Smithsonian magazine:

The machine itself, a redesigned vintage North Star game created for a collector, is titled Punball: Only One Earth. It’s a “global warning” about global warming. Text running across the machine reads “the eye scabs are melting” and refers to the ice caps that are melting. This playful take on language is present in all of Wiley’s work.

A few years later, in 2012, SAAM hosted an exhibit entitled Art of Video Games, which featured relics from my childhood such as Super Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Myst. While Roger Ebert and Jonathan Jones have maintained that video games are not a form of art, the Smithsonian’s exhibit joined other critics in challenging visitors to consider otherwise. On one wall was a quote from Nolan Bushnell (founder of Atari and Chuck-E-Cheese), “Video games foster the mindset that allows creativity to grow.”

The Art of Video Games at Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Art of Video Games at Smithsonian American Art Museum

The question “Is this art?” is not unique to video games, and museum staff who make decisions about what to exhibit, as well as staff who interact with visitors regularly, surely are used to fielding that particular line. Answering “Is this art?” is beyond the scope of this blog post and ultimately raises the question (about which volumes have been written) about what art is.

But if you ask the question, “Do video games have value as objects in an art museum?” you may be able to work out a still subjective, but less existential, answer. Does the video game art serve a function in educating audiences, in helping visitors appreciate art in everyday life, in placing video games in the context of art history as a whole, in understanding the creative genius of individual game designers? Do pinball machines or screens showing Mario and Yoshi take away from the paintings down the hall in any way? Perhaps arcades like White Flint’s now defunct Dave and Buster’s are not the only place where video games belong.

As a kid, I loved Yoshi, and I drew this picture.

As a kid, I loved Yoshi, and I drew this picture.

White Flint is on the Red Line.

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Happy June

I realized (too late) that it has been too long since I posted anything on this blog. In fact, I neglected this blog for the whole month of May.

Among things that happened in May 2015: I turned another year old! And after nine months of having a camera that (after lots of love and use) barely worked anymore, I received a brand new one for my birthday, thanks to my parents. Here are some pictures I took on the new camera while exploring the northern part of Old Town Alexandria:

Oronoco Bay Park

Oronoco Bay Park

oronoco spite

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Baltimore Museums Respond

This will not be a post about police brutality or riots or whether these are the proper terms for the heartbreaking events that have happened not too far north of me (and, for that matter, all over the country). That blog post would take more energy and wisdom than I have right now. What I am writing now will just be a museum-related post on a museum-themed blog, about the effect of the last few days’ events on Baltimore museums and other cultural venues, and how these organizations are reacting and relating to their audiences.

While it will not be an exhaustive list, Baltimore does have a great many museums, and I have tried to research as many as I can to see what updates they have posted on their websites and social media, or how they otherwise have made the news.

(Note: I aim to focus on the ways in which museums are responding to the protests, helping their audiences process what has happened, engaging with their online and onsite visitors, relating their collections to the unrest, and contributing to the community. Some museums’ posts have shown a more specific and decisive stance on the events than others. I am not trying to make a “Who Is on Which Side” list, and I see the issues as much more complex than one side versus another.)

Many posts and tweets have been to announce logistical updates: we are closed, we are open, we are rescheduling our big spring event until a later time. Events that had originally been scheduled for times that would keep people out after the curfew have been canceled or postponed.

American Visionary Art Museum

American Visionary Art Museum

Two major annual events – the American Visionary Art Museum’s Kinetic Sculpture Race and FlowerMart in the neighborhood of Mount Vernon – have been postponed. Meanwhile, AVAM has posted a number of photos of their celebrated works of art, in a show of love and support for their city. AVAM and the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum have both posted on Facebook this form to help coordinate connecting interested volunteers with entities and residences that need rebuilding.

The library system in Baltimore City, Enoch Pratt Free Library, is keeping all of its branches open (though the neighborhood branches are closing early each day this week). Recreation centers are staying open. These community spaces are actively welcoming the students whose schools have closed due to the state of emergency – many of whom depend on school for breakfast and lunch. Independent bookstores Red Emma’s and Ivy Book Shop are open for business. Red Emma’s, also a restaurant and coffeehouse, has been offering free meals to students, as well as collecting food donations to distribute elsewhere. Other restaurants that have donated free meals to students include Joe Squared and Bottega Italian Restaurant.

Although the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra had to reschedule a number of evening events due to the curfew, they also put on a free Peace Concert Wednesday, April 29, at noon in response to the events of the past few days. Arts organizations like Gallery 788, Area 405, and the Contemporary have also responded with events such as free art activities for students out of school and a benefit art auction. The Baltimore Museum of Industry is offering free admission through Sunday, May 3.

Port Discovery Children’s Museum provides this list of resources for discussing the protests, and the things being protested, with children. B&O Railroad Museum postponed its event starring beloved anthropomorphized train Thomas the Tank Engine, and responded to false social media rumors that Thomas had been stolen from the museum in the course of the riots.

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum has been extremely active on Facebook the last few days, posting everything from a roundtable discussion on Ferguson, to quotes from museumgoers on how their community could be made better, to music recordings and dance videos, to photos of positive images from the protests in Baltimore. (While researching on museums’ Facebook pages, I generally noticed a sudden change in the topic and nature of the posts on Monday, April 27, but in the case of the Lewis Museum, these issues have been a recurring theme in what they post to their Facebook audience.)

The Walters Art Museum has announced a partnership with Morgan State University, and is actively speaking to the role museums can play in rebuilding:

Walters Art Museum director Julia Marciari-Alexander said on Monday that the arts have a responsibility to the community to be a source for healing.

“Museums should be places where people can have conversations about difficult subjects in a safe environment,” she said. “We’re only going to get through this if we talk.”

Poe House has posted a Poe poem to inspire hope. The National Aquarium has published a post of thanks, noting that staff have continued caring for the animals while the aquarium was closed.

In its most recent newsletter, the Maryland Historical Society speaks of the importance of understanding modern events in their historical context, stating “The Society has the collections and resources to take a long look at the sources of urban unrest and trouble.”

The Jewish Museum of Maryland asked its Facebook audience for thoughts on an article headlined, “Why – And How – Baltimore Jews Must Act Now.” Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and its Baltimore Art + Justice Project are compiling “an archive of the cultural production efforts that are happening in the midst of our Baltimore Uprising” and asking for folks to contribute the art they have made in response to the protests.

If there are other cultural institutions whose responses to the recent events should be included in this post, please let me know in the comments. I am posting this with hope for safety, healing, and justice for all.

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Pause on the Path More at Grosvenor-Strathmore

Earlier this month was Slow Art Day: the day when participating museums choose five pieces of art that participating visitors will look at slowly – for five to ten minutes – and then discuss with other visitors over lunch. Some of 2015’s official participants were the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Laurel Museum, the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College, and the University of Maryland Art Gallery. (Appropriately, both the University of Maryland, College Park and Slow Art Day have turtles as a symbol.) Besides these local and regional institutions, dozens of museums all over the country as well as sites in countries such as the UK, Ghana, and Australia participated.

But regardless of whether a museum is officially participating, there is art in a lot of places (and there can, in theory, be slowness in a lot of places).

Discover Stathmore: Sounds of Brazil, June 2014

Discover Stathmore: Sounds of Brazil, June 2014

The primary place to visit near the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro station is the Music Center at Strathmore, which as the name suggests, is mostly known for its live musical performances. But in addition to its fame as a performing arts venue, it is also a museum of visual arts.

I visited Strathmore last year for the Discover Strathmore: Sounds of Brazil open house, a free day full of performances and family activities. With good weather and the prospect of a free visit to a place whose live shows normally cost money, the center was crowded on that late-spring Sunday afternoon. While walking on the grounds and through the Mansion, which hosts exhibits relating to visual and performing arts, I felt overstimulated and overwhelmed by the number of people sharing the space.

It did not feel like a slow experience for me, especially inside, maneuvering my way through the exhibits, waiting in line for the bathroom. I didn’t bother stopping to look closely at anything or read the text. I wanted to see the mansion, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of time lingering when there were so many other people around waiting for a turn.

Discover Stathmore: Sounds of Brazil, June 2014

Discover Stathmore: Sounds of Brazil, June 2014

Following the Brazilian theme, there were recordings of Brazilian music playing in one room in the mansion. When I entered the room, the song playing was “Aguas de Marco” written by Antonio Carlos Jobim (“Waters of March” in English). It is a mellow, peaceful, pretty song that provided a sense of calm and solitude even among the crowd.

Outside, the people were mostly concentrated around the gazebo, which served as the main performance stage that day. The music was upbeat, fast-paced, and fun. Festivalgoers were encouraged to get up and dance with the costumed performers. Food and drink were available for purchase, giving the event a cookout feel.

So what could be enjoyed slowly, among the fast music and the crowds? The grounds of Strathmore are dotted with sculpture, offering anyone who needs to slip away from the excitement a chance for slow art viewing. The sculpture garden includes a few pieces that evoke music and dance, along with birds and deer, a small temple perhaps reminding one of the big gazebo, and several abstract works. If you walk along the paths, you can see these works, along with flowers and trees.

My interest in Slow Art is not based on any belief that slowness is an inherent virtue in itself, but in the importance of embracing a variety of paces and approaches to museum visiting. The possibilities that can emerge from viewing a piece slowly need special attention and encouragement because they might seem so unusual and counter-intuitive at first. As this article on Slow Art quotes one museum professional, “the slow art experience is surprisingly challenging—more challenging than you think!”

Slowness in a museum is a luxury not always practical or even available. Not everyone has the time required, and those who are shelling out money to visit a museum may understandably want to make sure they don’t miss anything. At a museum with large crowds in a small space, manners (hopefully) keep a few individuals from monopolizing the viewing space around a piece everyone wants a turn to see. If the only way to view a collection is by guided tour (as is the case at many DC-area sites, for security reasons), trying to linger behind rather than moving along with the group can land a visitor on a personally-guided tour right out of the building.

Music Center at Strathmore Sculpture Garden: "Up the Ramp" by David Stromeyer

Music Center at Strathmore Sculpture Garden: “Up the Ramp” by David Stromeyer

And then there are the social considerations when visiting with others: one friend has never been to this museum before and wants to stop to look at everything; the other friend is getting hungry and anyway has been here a hundred times already. One half of the couple wants to meet up with a larger group and the other is not feeling very extraverted today. Mom needs to read every word of wall text, while Dad would like to go see a second museum before it closes this afternoon. None of these approaches are right or wrong or more valid than another.

As the main attraction near the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro, the Music Center at Strathmore is nice in that it offers some choice: in the thick of things or off on the path, visual or performing arts, inside or outside.

Grosvenor-Strathmore is on the Red Line.

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Valerie Tripp at the Bethesda Literary Festival

Last weekend Bethesda, Maryland (whose Metro stop with the same name I blogged about several weeks ago) held its 16th annual Bethesda Literary Festival, an event that takes place from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon during one weekend in April each year.

On Saturday I heard author Valerie Tripp speak about the many, many American Girl books she has written. Most of her audience consisted of little girls, their families, and of course their dolls. But when Tripp introduced herself to me and I told her I had been a fan as a kid, she welcomed me as one of her “alums.”

American Girl has launched several dozen dolls, paired with books and accessories, many from historical periods with the goal of teaching today’s late elementary age girls about events and eras of American history through the eyes of a fictional girl growing up and trying to understand the world and find her place in it.

Me on the occasion of my tenth birthday, reading an American Girl book with my Samantha doll. Photo probably taken by my mother.

Me on the occasion of my tenth birthday, in May 1992, reading an American Girl book with my Samantha doll. Photo probably taken by my mother.

When I was young and receiving the big, glossy Pleasant Company catalogs in the mail, there were only three dolls: Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly. Then there was Felicity. Then Addy was added. Josefina came on board after I had lost interest, and I mostly lost track after that. When I was in elementary school, I had the Samantha and Felicity dolls, but I read the books about all of the dolls who had been invented at that point.

By essentially pairing books, dolls, and mini-replicas of historical items, American Girl offers object-based learning, which in my case often happened at elementary school sleepovers. You could buy Addy’s washstand, Kirsten’s weaving loom, the many layers of clothing Felicity had to wear.

At her talk, Valerie Tripp engaged the girls in the audience by having them pretend to be different characters: imagining wearing a corset and curtsying like Felicity, sitting up straight like Samantha, and curling their toes like Kit had to do.

Tripp asked the girls how this last exercise related to Kit, and a girl who must have been around seven or eight explained that Kit had to fit into shoes that were too small. Because they couldn’t afford new shoes. Because her father lost his job. Because of the Great Depression.

Delighted with this answer, Tripp explained that she had fought hard with American Girl to create a Depression-era doll, as the company had thought that kids would not understand such complicated ideas.

The books are slim, but they deal with some serious topics: slavery, war, child labor, immigration. They are not without controversy, to be sure, as adults disagree on whether and how to broach these subjects with children, how best to represent the diversity of people in American history, and which dolls to introduce and which to retire. Nor are the dolls and lines of related products cheap, thus excluding a lot of the potentially interested market and leading to the irony of spending good money on a doll and her accessories in order to act out the character’s impoverished day-to-day life. Despite the criticisms, the series has reached two generations of young learners now, and the company has won awards for its books, its toys, and even its restaurants.

Valerie Tripp speaks about the books she has written at the Bethesda Literary Festival 2015

Valerie Tripp speaks about the books she has written at the Bethesda Literary Festival 2015

Hearing the author speak about the books, so engaged with her young audience, added another layer of bringing the books (back to) life for me and reminding me of certain scenes I had read 16 years ago but forgotten. Tripp was eager to ask and answer questions, called the girls her inspiration, and read a story she had written in elementary school, spelling errors and all.

For anyone (adult or child) who missed the talk at the Bethesda Literary Festival last weekend and still wants to get their American Girl fix, there is the American Girl store at the (now Metro-accessible) Tysons Corner Center. Visitors to the National Museum of American History can use these guides relating to the stories of Caroline, Addy, and several characters from different eras.

Among the modern-day Girls of the Year, two in particular lend themselves well to museum and park visits. Saige’s art-themed curriculum, developed in partnership with Americans for the Arts, could be used in conjunction with a visit to an art museum or gallery. Nature’s daughter Lanie is the star of a National Wildlife Federation-sponsored curriculum guide that emphasizes finding and being a steward for the wildlife that is native to one’s area, which can be found in nearby parks and nature centers.

This article discusses a day at the National Museum of the United States Navy, featuring the World War II-era doll Molly, and an author visit from Valerie Tripp. The statement that at this NMUSN event, “Tripp agreed to continue signing books for a total of five hours, though originally scheduled to remain for two, giving more fans an opportunity to meet her,” is not at all surprising after the graciousness and genuine interest I saw Tripp give to her readers last week at the Bethesda Literary Festival.

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