MOOlogy to the meMOOry of MOO

My family’s precious Olivia Kitty Mittens, aka Moo, got very sick on Monday and had to be put down on Tuesday. She was suffering, and there was no time for us all to say good-bye; only my mother was with her in her last moments.

The grief is overpowering.

What is there to say about Moo in a museum (or moo-seum) blog? Moo may never have gone to a museum in her life, but I’m sure she fancied herself the lioness of every zoo, the angel in every painting, and the queen of every historic castle.


Since it is almost Halloween, here is a picture of Moo from Halloween 2012, when she was the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland.

She loved to explore, whether trying to escape to the great outdoors or perusing nooks and crannies in the house that we humans never see. More than anything else, she loved to eat.

Her other hobbies included sleeping in boxes lined with tissue paper, lying on top of newspapers, and trying to steal food from her brothers. When she was younger, she was more playful, enjoying toys and tunnels and tents.

She had a weird, lifelong appetite for materials like ribbons, plastic bags, cellophane, and foil. All of our Christmas bows have teeth marks.

Our Moo was an extremely pretty kitty. Her face said “Moo,” with the M-shaped markings above her two enormous yellow eyes. She was dressed up on occasion, just long enough to take a photo, and she tended to get typecast: Queen of Hearts, Elsa, the witch, the queen, the princess.

Moo brought happiness to her forever humans (or loyal subjects, in her mind) for 4,306 days. She was not necessarily always a happy cat herself, being full of catitude, but we hope that our love and care brought her some joy over the years.

Moo will always be remembered with reverence for her beauty and majesty, with amusement at her silly antics, and above all, with love.

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Visiting Glenwood at Rhode Island Ave-Brentwood

Rhode Island Ave-Brentwood is not, as far as I know, the nearest Metro to any museum in the usual sense of the word. However, it is near historic Glenwood Cemetery, an example of one of those murky categories of places that can sometimes be considered, or experienced as, museums. While I would not classify most cemeteries as museums, I did include both Arlington National Cemetery and Congressional Cemetery as destinations in Weekly Museum Visits.

Glenwood is a place of history in its own right, having been officially established under its current name in 1854. Constantino Brumidi (painter of so much of the interior of the United States Capitol) and Clarke Mills (who cast the Capitol’s Statue of Freedom) are both buried here, as are some notable leaders and teachers in DC history.

Insofar as Glenwood can be construed as a history museum (or at least, an informal learning environment with historical objects), I would argue that it can also be considered an example of crowd curation. The objects are selected not by curators but by the loved ones of the deceased, created with a personal favorite quote or image in mind.


Glenwood Cemetery

There are gravestones of varying degrees of fanciness, angels and lambs, a touching image of a young man (who died way too young) with his beloved dog. In addition to the grave markers meant to last far into the future, the flowers placed on graves are a more temporary example of objects contributed by members of the public. Glenwood’s website notes that after a woman named Daisy died, “her husband planted each spring a blanket of cultivated daisies on her grave” for the rest of his life.

Since the cemetery is still selling plots and serving as a site for funeral services, the historic cemetery is continuing to witness history as tributes to loved ones are added. New permanent headstones and briefly blooming flowers will continue to shape the cemetery, and the experience of mourners as well as visitors passing through.

Rhode Island Ave-Brentwood is on the Red Line.

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Two Book Festivals

This year marked the 17th annual National Book Festival (NBF) in DC, my 12th, and my parents’ first. It is also the year of the 22nd annual Baltimore Book Festival (BBF) and my first – historically, the two festivals have often conflicted, but this year they were held on different weekends.

At both festivals, authors speak at scheduled times on genre-themed stages. At BBF, as used to be the case at NBF, the stages are outdoors, under large white tents. (There were also some indoor presentations, including readings at the National Aquarium.) NBF’s writers now give their talks in conference rooms at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Both events can be a little overwhelming. Books are awesome and popular, which means that celebrations of books get crowded.

No matter how many times I go to the Convention Center, it never fails to confuse me. The complex has a north building and a south building, and somehow even a middle building. There are at least two food courts, known as the Uptown Food District (on an upper level) and the Downtown Food District (on a lower level). In the true spirit of promoting literacy, a giant screen at NBF this year pointed to the “Uptwon Food District.”

After I heard Chris Bohjalian and Dava Sobel speak, and my mother and father listened to Nathan Hill, I met my parents for lunch at the Uptown Uptwon Food District. As we finished our meal, I was left with a small piece of pizza. Of course, I wanted to take it with me to eat later.

“Maybe you can get a Herman,” said my mother.

“This is a Herman,” I told her, indicating the cardboard box in which the personal-size pizza had been given to us.

“I mean, maybe you can find a smaller Herman,” she replied.

Yes – in my family, to-go containers for food are called Hermans. They have been for a couple of decades now. It’s a long story (and it has nothing to do with any actual person named Herman).

I share this anecdote because it’s a perfect example of the family slang Emma Donoghue spoke about at the next session I attended, at the Children’s Purple Stage. In her case, the Royal Ontario Museum is called the Uh-Oh, because when her son first saw it as a young child, he thought it had exploded and said “uh-oh!”

nbf collage

National Book Festival 2017 authors, with varying degrees of photo quality: Chris Bohjalian, Dava Sobel, Emma Donoghue, Dan Chaon, and Ha Jin. The ghostly image of Chaon is a metaphor for the creepiness of his writing.

Next I rejoined my parents for Dan Chaon’s talk, and then I stuck around to hear Ha Jin. A few weeks later, on a hot day in Baltimore, I attended Alice McDermott’s presentation in a tent at the Inner Harbor.

In their pavilions or conference rooms, each with a designated genre, the authors all spoke in some way about the categorization of writers and writing. My parents reported that Nathan Hill said that his book cannot really be categorized. Dan Chaon, in a conversation with Ron Charles of the Washington Post, spoke of the blurring between genre fiction and literary fiction, and the “literary thrillers” he has written.

Dava Sobel began her talk with a comment on the genre stage she’d been assigned. “Contemporary life?” she mused, wondering if the term was “a euphemism for science.”

Sobel told her audience that she wishes someone had told her about science writing when she was in high school. She had always liked both science and writing, but until she discovered the category of science writing, she wasn’t sure how to put her two seemingly disparate interests together.

Chris Bohjalian, who appears to have read every book in the universe, mentioned “doorstops” – those thick tomes, novels that are hundreds upon hundreds of pages long. Doorstops, he said, are still being published (and he rattled off some of his favorites), but they have changed over time: today’s editors would never allow 60 pages of detail on sperm whales or sewer systems in a work of fiction. He also spoke of the differences between his own historical fiction and his novels set in the present: the former deal with people’s willingness to be complicit in evil, the latter are about moral ambiguity.

Emma Donoghue devoted most of her presentation to her recently published book for young children. The listening crowd was largely grown up – people probably like me, who had read something she’d written for adults. One of the first audience questions she answered was whether she would continue to write adult novels (the answer was yes).

At NBF, Ha Jin fielded an audience question as to why his novel Waiting is considered an American novel (and he gave a number of reasons besides the obvious, that he is a Chinese American novelist). Alice McDermott told her readers at BBF that while she has previously been a writer who is also Catholic, it was only her most recent work that is actually a Catholic book.

Besides the difference in venues, NBF and BBF varied in the authors they featured. BBF tends to have less established, more up-and-coming writers, with a few big names like McDermott in the mix. At BBF, there is also more Baltimore history (as one would expect), as well as tents devoted to romance, speculative fiction, and radical thought.

Untitled design

Alice McDermott at the 2017 Baltimore Book Festival

Questions of categorization also relate to why book festivals belong in a blog about museums. Besides the fact that this particular blogger really loves book festivals, there’s also the symbiotic relationship among museums, libraries, and book events. Museums often have libraries; libraries often have objects and exhibit space. NBF is sponsored by the Library of Congress (which is a museum as well as a library); BBF takes place partially in the National Aquarium. I believe I heard once that libraries and museums are like the two sides of the brain, but now I can’t find the quote anywhere.

Perhaps someday it will be in either a library or a museum that I will encounter the exact quotation and attribution.


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Little and Free

I obtained this Little Free Library coloring page at a previous year’s National Book Festival (and recently finally colored it).


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Information for the Nation at Union Station

Union Station is a hub of activity: Metro trains, commuter trains, buses, government buildings, restaurants, museums. It is the closest Metro station to Sewall-Belmont House (a Weekly Museum Visit) and my internship at the National Postal Museum. The Supreme Court and the Senate side of the Capitol complex are also nearby; I exited the Metro system at Union Station every day while I held jobs at the Capitol.

More recently, I visited the bookstore and museum portions of the Government Publishing Office (GPO). The exhibit space highlights the agency’s mission of “Keeping America Informed”, which is near and dear to my heart. (My blog’s name is a reference to the seminal 1992 report Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums, in which the writers proclaimed museum educators’ desire for “an informed and humane citizenry.”)

In visiting both the museum and the bookstore, I saw a variety of titles that GPO had published over the years. There were books about outer space and National Parks, dry-looking tomes full of government regulations and colorful activity books for kids, citizenship test study guides and glossy photo books honoring the military. The titles varied: Public Pages of the Presidents. Let’s Have Fun with Fire Safety. Mindfulness and Judging.


I don’t know this keyboard layout… 1910 Linotype Machine at the Government Publishing Office exhibit

One interesting thread throughout the small exhibit was the history of employment practices at the agency. As I’ve mentioned in other recent posts, I’m interested both in internal labor aspects of museums and in seeing an element of self-reflection at museums that tell the story of a profession or professional body. While this small exhibit space certainly did not provide an exhaustive treatment of either theme, I appreciated seeing such ideas addressed at all.

According to the wall text, in 1924, GPO was the first government agency in which employees won the right to collectively bargain for wages. As the exhibit explored technological changes at different points in history (until 2014, the agency was called the Government Printing Office), the text emphasized that despite worries that technology upgrades would result in lost jobs, such fears did not come to fruition.

Moreover, a description of two cases involving sex and race discrimination, respectively, at GPO in the 1970s and 1980s, ends with: “Although difficult, these two cases opened the door to fairer treatment and helped form the body of law that protects all Federal workers from discrimination today.”

While I would not recommend GPO if you are looking to learn about difficult history in-depth, it’s nice to see a museum not shy away from it. The GPO exhibit and bookstore are interesting places to drop by if you like books, government history, or exploring lesser-known sites. It may be off the beaten path in the sense that it is not on every tourist’s bucket list, but it is just a couple of blocks from the Metro station.

Union Station is on the Red Line.

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Interpret with Care at Judiciary Square

Six years ago, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial (NLEOM) and its Visitors Center made up one of my Weekly Museum Visits. The memorial itself is located across from the National Building Museum, and surrounds commuters using one of the Judiciary Square Metro exits as they ride up the escalators. A few blocks away, on 7th Street between the Archives and Gallery Pl-Chinatown Metros, is the Visitors Center. Other museums near Judiciary Square include the Koshland Science Museum and Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum, which were also among my Weekly Museum Visits.

In my 2011 write-up of NLEOM, I stated:

“The Visitors Center consists of a store that has a few museum-like elements: a touch-screen that allows visitors to watch videos about the memorial, a time line of notable events in the history of United States law enforcement, and a floor plan and exhibit descriptions for the museum that will open in 2013….I hope that [the National Law Enforcement Museum] will include similar [to what the Newseum does for journalism in the Ethics Center and the News History gallery] treatment of the ethical questions involved in law enforcement.”

Oh, what a six years it has been.

National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, photographed at night in 2013

National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, photographed at night in 2013

For starters, the museum did not open in 2013. (Construction just started in 2016, and the website currently announces a 2018 opening.) More notable, however, is that when I wrote those words in 2011, I was not predicting how much interest, controversy, and news coverage surrounding this topic would explode in the coming years.

While 2013 did not bring us the National Law Enforcement Museum, it did see the first use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, on July 13 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. The responses of museums to the August 2014 death of Michael Brown and many, many similar incidents have been collected using the hashtag #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson. I have written of a few local (Baltimore) examples of museums addressing the subject here and here.

NLEOM’s webpage shows a total of 21,183 deaths of on-duty U.S. police officers from 1791 through 2016, plus 85 in 2017 so far. Killings of police officers have steadily decreased over the last few decades. No nationwide statistics are kept on the number of people killed by police, but the Washington Post started keeping track in 2015 and counted 965 that year, followed by 963 in 2016.

In short, too many people are dying.

Plenty of people and groups – museum people and organizations, religious groups, secular non-profits, politicians, and everyday Americans—have made statements that are thoughtful, nuanced, and holding faith in the idea that we can do better, acknowledging both specific tragedies and systemic patterns and problems. I won’t try to reinvent the wheel by writing my own. Instead, I will just rhetorically ask: To those who think that the present state of policing and rate of fatalities of black citizens by law enforcement is fine the way it is and does not need to be critiqued or improved, under what circumstances would you think that there is a problem? What would be your tipping point?

As I write about these issues and questions, I am eager to know how they will be addressed by NLEM when it opens. I still hope that the museum will interpret its collection with care and reflection, presenting both the good and the bad to the public. Right now the museum is only in its construction phase. The memorial itself, of course, still stands, with its list of names and its watchful lion statues. And while the museum does not have a physical presence yet, it does have an online presence. Interestingly, I learned from the website that part of its funding comes from asset forfeiture, the controversial practice of police officers seizing money and property on the suspicion that these assets were involved in a crime, even if no arrests were made.

The mission statement of NLEM has shortened since I posted it in 2011, to “The mission of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund is to tell the story of American law enforcement and make it safer for those who serve.” As a curious person who loves museums, storytelling, and safety, I can end this post exactly as I ended my 2011 post: “I look forward to visiting once the museum is built.”

Judiciary Square is on the Red Line.


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Museums and Memorials

Do you like to read? Do you love to be surrounded by books, reread old favorites, discover new ones? Maybe you love to spend time at the public library, or with your own personal book collection.

Perhaps you will never forget a few favorite lines from a couple of favorite books, and maybe you have some of these quotations on bumper stickers or hanging on your wall.

But you don’t have every word of every book displayed in a place of prominence as an inspiring quote.

In a similar vein, you may be passionate about history and enjoy seeing artifacts from the past. But not every interesting relic from history deserves to be put on a pedestal.

Over the last few weeks, momentum for taking Confederate statues down from places of honor has reached a crescendo, and people throughout the United States (and yes, there is Confederate statuary in states far-flung from the actual region that seceded) are discussing the differences between memorials and museums. The statues of Lee, Davis, and others that currently tower over parks and sit in front of courthouses could instead join the collections of museums with a relevant content area. They would not need to be on display at all times. Nor would their interpretive use be limited to exhibits on the Civil War; they are also curiosities from the later eras in which most of said statues were commissioned and erected.

The reasons for the recent removal of several statues and the active debate on many others have been articulated in a number of speeches and articles – far too many writings to be posted here. So instead I’ll just post a few favorite lines.

“…removing — or moving — Confederate monuments is not historical erasure. The same logic could have been used to justify maintaining, after 1964, signs that identified ‘Negro water fountains,’ ‘Colored waiting room,’ and the other markers of Southern segregation.”

-W. Fitzhugh Brundage, in the article “I’ve studied the history of Confederate memorials. Here’s what to do about them” published on

“Effective museum interpretation would not stop there. It would address the reoccurring questions surrounding this symbol. Why do people find the flag offensive? Why are other people so attached to the flag? Why do some people who embrace the fullness of Southern pride, including the Confederate flag, not see themselves as racists?”

-Public historian Aleia Brown in a 2015 Slate article which outlines what museums would need to do in order to provide the proper context for such objects – and argues that museums so far have not proven themselves up to the task

“Sometimes the Rebel battle flag and the bronze generals on horseback stand for badass rebellion and hell-raisin’. Sometimes they stand for a genteel and deliberately vague conception of ‘heritage and history,’ all too perfectly captured in the noxious and seductive ‘Gone With the Wind,’ a film that overwrote actual history for several generations of white Americans. Sometimes they stand for overt and vicious racism.”

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir on the symbolism contained in Confederate memorials

“In a public place, if it is offensive and people are taking issue with it, let’s move it. Let’s put it somewhere where historically it fits with the area around it so you can have people come to see it, who want to understand that history and that individual.”

-Bertram Hayes-Davis, great-great-grandson of Jefferson Davis, quoted in a CNN article

“2nd Place Participant”

-A banner that Rebecca McHood added to a Confederate monument in Phoenix, highlighting the cognitive dissonance that must be experienced by those who disparage participation trophies but glorify the Confederacy

“These Confederate monuments are historically significant and essential to understanding a critical period of our nation’s history. Just as many of them do not reflect, and are in fact abhorrent to, our values as a diverse and inclusive nation. We cannot and should not erase our history. But we also want our public monuments, on public land and supported by public funding, to uphold our public values.”

Statement from the National Trust for Historic Preservation

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