September TBR

Happy Labor Day! Included in this month’s TBR list are a couple of articles related to fair pay and workplace safety in the world of museum labor.

Place to visit:

National Museum of African American History and Culture. I have been wanting to visit since it opened, but have been waiting for the crowds to be less overwhelming, for entry to be easier to obtain, and for a full day’s block of time to spend at the museum. And yes, I certainly expect to see difficult history addressed in the exhibits.

Articles to read:

Trump Reportedly Didn’t Want to See Anything “Difficult” in Visit to African American History Museum

Mural On Milwaukee Bus Depicting ICE Raid Draws Criticism

Hospital Art Helps People Heal, but the Artworks Need Care Too

Science Museum workers are striking for fair pay

No, Confederate monuments don’t preserve history. They manipulate it

Atlanta’s High Museum Has Launched a ‘Dating App’ to Match Visitors With the Perfect Artwork

Michigan’s Statewide Effort to Atone for the Sins of Its Historic Markers

The Museum Wall That Broke the Art Handler’s Back

Ryan White state historical marker unveiled

Wildlife bridges over highways make animals and people safer

The Illustrator behind Madeline, the Timeless Children’s Character

Maryland museum considers removing Confederate flag from logo | WTOP

In Flint, Schools Overwhelmed by Special Ed. Needs in Aftermath of Lead Crisis

Can Museums Reduce Their Use of Single-Use Plastic?

Opportunities for Museums to Lead for the Future of Learning

Patrons Wore Blackface and Colonial-Era Costumes to Party at AfricaMuseum

Native American history in Washington — it’s more than just a museum

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August TBR

I’m going to be on a hiatus for about six months or so, as I really just need to focus on my job and my health right now. So instead of posting my thoughts on museums visited or books and articles read, I will occasionally post a list of places I want to visit and items to read later. (If you have any recommendations, leave a comment!)

Number one upcoming place to visit:

National Book Festival on Saturday, August 31, 2019 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center!

Articles to read, podcasts to hear, etc.:

Museopunks Episode 37: Experience doesn’t pay the rent

The New Museum’s Bathroom Nominated as “America’s Best Restroom”

How Protecting Civil War Battlefields Helps Protect Drinking Water

What we can learn from Pop-Up Museums? Best practice and ideas from Instagram friendly experiences

Building an Equitable Future: Museums and Reparations

As Trump administration moves to ‘improve’ citizenship test, Philly’s American Revolution museum steps up to help migrants succeed

Why bad ideas lead to good ideas: using “reverse thinking” in a design sprint at the National Gallery of Art

Inside Hushed Museum Hallways, a Rumble Over Pay Grows Louder

WAGE Just Released a Calculator That Tells Artists If They’re Getting Paid Fairly for Their Work

Atlanta to add context about the South’s racist history to monuments

Trump Eliminates Plastic Water Bottle Ban in National Parks, Removes White House Bikeshare Station

9 Museums Around the World That Every Cat Lover Should Visit

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Recent Reflections and Reads: Self-Taught Art

On a whim in June, I decided I wanted to make art. It was literally an urge out of nowhere. One moment I had no thoughts whatsoever about wanting to paint or collage, and the next minute, I was very much wanting to paint and collage. I bought some supplies, and painting has been like an obsession or an addiction ever since.

This is not to say that I have any idea what I am doing. Recently, when the same cashier at Michaels rang up yet another round of canvas, he told me that he was still working on the same one oil painting. Meanwhile, there I was rushing through my small canvases.

As a viewer, I have always been drawn to art that gets categorized as folk, self-taught, outsider, visionary. But when it comes to my own creations, I am not so much self-taught as not-taught-at-all (beyond the art classes that were part of my elementary and middle school curriculum, which happened a long time ago).

Like the makeshift spread of acrylic-splattered newspapers on my floor, my position as a not-taught-at-all does not always sit comfortably with me. I can’t help but wonder if there is a connection between my painting without expertise and the broader cloud of anti-expertise that plagues our society. Why does anyone need to actually learn or study anything, if my alternative facts are as good as your facts? If there’s no need, for example, to pay attention to the work and warnings of climate scientists?painting

At the very least, when it comes to producing creative work, don’t you have to know the rules before you can break them?

I know two things: one, that there are endless upon endless techniques that I know I don’t know how to achieve (or, I try them, and then quickly learn that I don’t know how to carry them out). Two, that in the month and a half of putting paint on canvas, I have made a few things that I genuinely like.

Whether I will take a formal class in the near future remains to be seen. Just buying supplies alone is turning out to be enough of a financial investment at the moment. In the meantime, I can go online to read up on techniques, and to contemplate ideas like those in the following articles:

  1. 10 things about being an artist that art teachers don’t tell you by Emily Browne, from the Guardian in 2013. Advice for people who are studying to be artists, mostly regarding the realities of the job market and challenges of making a living from creative work.
  2. And somewhat on the flip side, another 2013 article, this one posted by Ellen Bard on her blog: 9 Things I Learned in Art Class. Bard takes the techniques and advice she learned in her beginner art class, like starting with soft strokes and then going stronger, and applies it to life beyond the sketchpad. [The link was working a day ago, but as I’m finalizing the post on July 31, 2019, it’s giving me an error message.]
  3. What It Means To Be A ‘Self-Taught Genius’ In Art – This 2015 article in the Huffington Post by Priscilla Frank discusses a traveling exhibit composed of works from the American Folk Art Museum, but also delves into the concepts underpinning the compilation of art in the show. And these underpinnings may in fact be difficult to pin down, but curator Shirley Reece-Hughes of the Amon Carter Museum noted a commonality in folk art: “The continuous thread would be the impulse to create….And the impulse to create in a manner that’s unfettered by conventions, whether it’s academic training or the traditional guidelines of art making.”
  4. The Rise of Self-Taught Artists by Sarah Boxer, published in The Atlantic in 2013, argues that outsider art had become “in.” Boxer also grapples with terms and definitions, and writes, “outsider does have a nice little paradox embedded in it: for an artist to be considered an outsider, he or she must first be brought inside the professional art world by an insider.”
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Zero-Tolerance in Twelve Objects, Part 2: The Slaughter of the Innocents

On June 15, 2018, Twitter user Brandon Horan tweeted, “When you see innocent kids being put in tents sleeping on floor after getting ripped from their parents and your response is ‘Did they come here legally?’, then we don’t have a difference in political opinion. We have a difference in morality.”

Let’s unpack this a little bit. Policies and conditions at the border were put into place by officials who were elected by electoral college, and by officials who were appointed by other officials. Since the events have been happening in the political realm, does it follow that disagreements on the subject are merely political disagreements?

I have sometimes observed an interesting phenomenon in which thoughtful, intelligent people are adept at critiquing social structures from a variety of angles and ethical questions – as long as such societies are long ago, far away, or found in a fictional dystopia. Not only do people consider the official laws and systems themselves, but also the role of everyday people in allowing, resisting, building, and navigating such systems. People are capable of identifying differing levels of power and autonomy in “other” civilizations, and recognizing that every choice occurs in a web of interconnected individuals and institutions. In other words, people are capable of seeing the doings of other political systems as both political and moral.

Yet when presented with a situation in their own society like the zero-tolerance policy that has been unraveling at the U.S.-Mexico border for more than a year, some people’s analysis starts – and stops – with “Did they come here legally?”

For anyone with access to the Internet and a good public library, there is no shortage of information out there about the choice-that-is-no-choice faced by asylum seekers who “choose” to enter a country that has greater prospects of safety. In her poem “Home“, Warsan Shire writes, “no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark”. The circumstances that have been reported widely in the news (and in many other lines in “Home”) are more literal, and all the more harrowing in their realism, than the shark mouth metaphor.

For just a few examples:

PBS correspondent Amna Nawaz alluded to the poem “Home” in an interview last year on the situation at the border, and elaborated, “When your home holds for you what seems to be certain death, and the only option you have is then facing uncertainty and potentially crossing into a foreign land to see what happens, for the possibility of saving your life or your family’s life, people we have talked to say, that’s not really a choice at all.”

In the small, enchanting Tuscan hilltop town of Colle di Val d’Elsa, the Museo San Pietro’s collection includes The Slaughter of the Innocents, a painting by Giovan Battista Paggi (1554-1627). This painting depicts a horrific scene: grown men wielding swords, babies lying in blood and being thrown from a window. The particularity of swords may seem quaint or unfamiliar to modern viewers. The theme of brutality should not.

The parallels between the Holy Family fleeing Herod’s massacre and the plight of today’s refugees trying to escape unspeakable circumstances have been observed again and again and again. There are those who refute the comparison, pointing out differences in the details, but under the layers of similarity and distinction is an unavoidable truth: as long as there is violence, there will be people trying to escape violence.

And in this world, at this time in history, as Valeria Luiselli writes, “It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.”

The Slaughter of the Innocents by Giovan Battista Paggi at the Museo San Pietro in Colle di Val d'Elsa, Italy

The Slaughter of the Innocents by Giovan Battista Paggi at the Museo San Pietro in Colle di Val d’Elsa, Italy

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Baltimore Photos

Some images I’ve previously posted in this blog, from my visits to Baltimore museums and events.

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Zero-Tolerance in Twelve Objects, Part 1: The Dwarf Morgante

I spent a week and a half at the end of June 2018 with my parents and siblings in Italy. It was a lovely trip, full of museums, old churches, older ruins, pasta, gelato, cats, and beautiful views of rivers and mountains. Taking a break from work and my normal routine did wonders for my psyche. But a vacation is not the same as a total escape, and my experience of Italy occurred not in a vacuum, but in the same universe as everything happening back home in the United States.

Throughout the trip, we endeavored to keep our party of five (none of us younger than 30 years old) together, or at least cognizant of one another’s whereabouts. As we walked along the narrow streets and sometimes-existent sidewalks, whoever was at the front constantly looked back to make sure they could see all our people among the crowds. Museum visits often included designating a particular room or statue where we would meet when, all going at different paces, we inevitably lost track of each other.

When visiting the Pitti Palace in Florence, some of us (myself included) wanted to brave the heat and the inclines in order to explore the Boboli Gardens, and others (possibly the wiser ones in this case) wished to stay inside and see the modern art. We decided upon The Dwarf Morgante by Valerio Cigoli, a sculpture of a man riding a turtle in the Boboli Gardens just outside the palace, as our meeting spot. This particular object was chosen because it was in a central location and it stood out from the other, non-turtle statues. For us, Cigoli’s work of art was a landmark as much as it was an object in the collection to be viewed.

marble statue of naked man riding on the back of a turtle

The Dwarf Morgante by Valerio Cigoli at Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy

At one point during our visit to Rome, my family did get separated, the doors closing on a packed bus with one of us on the bus and four of us still on the sidewalk waiting to board. That was the day we were visiting St. Peter’s. We were reunited soon enough, and as we walked toward the queue to enter the church, we wondered aloud where Italy ended and Vatican City began.

These silly anecdotes about trying to keep a family of five adult tourists together in a foreign country, and the amazing surroundings in which such anecdotes took place, could not be separated in my mind from the daily updates of horrifying news back home, which I read on my phone back in the apartments we rented. My perception of all the old art and cathedrals was inextricably linked to the resistance of today’s artists and religious leaders, among so many others, to the separation of asylum-seeking migrant families at the US-Mexico border. When I saw the many artifacts depicting children – cherubs, baby Jesus, newborn Roman gods – I could not help but think, again, of the stories I was reading about children in asylum-seeking families amidst Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, the chaotic implementation of the policy itself, and the June 20, 2018 executive order that changed some protocol without truly changing course. (A year later, we are still seeing horrific headlines every day.)

Since it was hard not to think about the news at the border while I was in Italy, it would also be hard to try to write about the trip in any depth or detail without also writing about what was on my mind. I also quickly realized it would be hard to write about it all in one post, without overwhelming my millions of readers. Accordingly, this is just the introductory blog post in a series about contemplating the US-Mexico border crisis through Italian and Vatican objects.

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Recent Reflections and Reads: The Incredible, Credible Museum

For the past six months, I’ve been contemplating questions related to what makes someone or something a trusted or persuasive source. In whose opinion or expertise do we put stock? How do we honor different kinds of knowledge, both that gained from study and that gained from personal experience? Who is the best person to tell someone’s story? To whose stories is society willing to listen? How do we center the voices of those who have historically been silenced? With proximity to death being a part of oppression, who is even around to tell one’s own story? Why might we feel that our own perspectives are not persuasive on their own, needing to be bolstered by statistics, or a long-form article showing someone else feels the same way? What biases or blind spots limit well-intentioned research projects or creative endeavors? How can objects, and the context provided by museums, fight an era of alternative facts and anti-expertise? And how do I get back into the habit of blogging about a particular field without getting bogged down in impostor syndrome? (If I didn’t manage to make a financially viable career in the field, am I, in fact, an impostor?)

1.       Honoring an Exhibition That Never Opened – article on the exhibit 6.13.89: The Canceling of the Mapplethorpe Exhibition that just opened at the Corcoran, which I can’t wait to see. Director of the Corcoran school Sanjit Sethi said that there’s currently “another conversation of what it means to be American. Are we really for a dynamic, culturally accepting, norm-disrupting and culturally creative society, or are we for something more homogenous? That’s where I think all cultural institutions [are]…you can’t assume someone else is going to push for those dialogues.”

2.       Guiding Questions to Think about Bias in Museums (by functional area) – blog post from Brilliant Idea Studio that encourages museums to tackle bias in a variety of ways that it can manifest itself. The process is one of interrogating omissions: “investigating inherent challenges requires thinking about who is missing and why.”

3.       The Value of Lived Experience in Social Change: The Need for Leadership and Organisational Development in the Social Sector offers further insights that can be applied to the questions posed in #2 above for museums in particular.

4.       Personality Tests Are Popular, But Do They Capture The Real You? – article by a skeptic questioning the credibility of personality tests, and exploring the limitations of personality tests in painting an accurate picture of who a person is.


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