Stations of the Cross D.C. 2017

As I visited the Stations of the Cross D.C. 2017 exhibit, I kept returning to the question, “Who is this for?” Initially, this question was mostly logistical, as I tried to visit not just museums and outdoor installations, but also churches during hours when they were open to the public, but when I would not be disrupting services.

I felt the “Who is this for?” acutely when I talked to a janitor who suggested that I come back on Sunday morning to see the work of art on display in the church. “Won’t I be disrupting services?” I asked a bit gapingly. At that point, someone affiliated with the church walked by, and in the end, I was let in to the sanctuary. The object I sought to view was off to the side, requiring that I walk past all the row of pews and then cross in front of the altar. I am very glad they let me in when they did, because there is no way I could have looked at the piece on Sunday morning without disrupting services.

I sensed the “Who is this for?” at the Church of the Epiphany, where I peeked through a gate at the art while walking the labyrinth, surrounded by the watchful eyes of people sitting and lying in the pews. The downtown church’s function as a daytime refuge for the homeless has perhaps increased due to the three-year closure of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library just a few blocks away. While I was inside the church, I thought, Out of everyone in this room, I have the least greatest need to be here.

The “Who is this for?” question worked in my favor at the Washington National Cathedral, where a mention of “Station 14” at the visitors desk gets your $12 admission waived. Meanwhile, at one museum, I neglected to see in advance that it would be closed on the day I visited, but I still got to see the art through a window. And at one church, I wandered around the open, airy building until I found someone who could play the video for me.

Collage of the 14 sites in Stations of the Cross D.C. 2017

Collage of the 14 sites in Stations of the Cross D.C. 2017

The Locations

The exhibit is made up of 14 stops (13 in DC and one in Virginia). There are four famous, secular memorials (MLK, FDR, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and the Marine Corps War Memorial, all managed by the National Park Service) which, full disclosure, I did not take the time to visit again this month, since I had seen them plenty of times before.

Three works are in art museums – two pieces are at the National Gallery of Art (one in the West Building and one in the East Building) and one is at the American University Museum.

Two more Stations are art installations outside the office buildings of religious organizations: the United Methodist Building and Catholic Charities.

The remaining five are inside churches: the Washington National Cathedral and Church of the Epiphany (both Episcopal), First Congregational United Church of Christ, Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart (Catholic) at Georgetown University, and St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

Out of those 14, two were sites of my Weekly Museum Visits (American University Museum and the MLK Memorial). One was at an alma mater of mine (Georgetown, though my recent visit to the chapel was maybe my fourth time ever on the main campus). Two were places where I’ve walked labyrinths.

The Works of Art

Keeping the nature of the different venues, and my own personal experiences (or lack thereof) with each of those locations in mind, I spent time this month visiting ten of the sites and listening to the website’s brief podcasts on all 14. I did not have a lot of prior knowledge of the Stations of the Cross tradition, beyond a pretty basic understanding of the story being told. As an outsider to the faith who celebrates a secular Christmas and Easter, I’m a bit of a Nativity scene fangirl, but I have never been particularly drawn to art portraying the crucifixion or surrounding events. While I recognize the great significance of the story to Christianity, the depictions I have seen at art museums and old churches have not been where my eyes or mind want to linger.

Some of the pieces in Stations are examples of those crucifixion-themed works of art that I would usually not look at for long: Hans Memling’s 1475 painting Saint Veronica, the spaces dedicated to Saint Joseph of Arimethea. Other installations address 20th and 21st century issues that many may not want to linger on as well: homelessness, poverty, racial segregation, genocide, forced migration, war, torture, and mass incarceration.

The Audience

The exhibit’s website, in its description of the 14 works, uses phrases like “reminds us,” “encourages us,” “address us,” and “hardens us.” These words raise the question, who is “us”?

At one level, the exhibit is, as stated on the website, “a pilgrimage for art lovers.” Certainly the works of art, which take the form of painting and sculpture and video and larger-than-life monument and more, are interesting in their own right.

Yet it is clear that Stations is not merely an art tour, but also an experience to be understood through a religious lens.

The website defines the Stations of the Cross as “a 14-step Catholic devotion that commemorates Jesus Christ’s last day on Earth as a man.” A United Methodist told me that she understands Stations of the Cross to be “a Catholic thing.” Indeed, two of the sites of the exhibit (Catholic Charities and Dahlgren Chapel) are Catholic.

Though Catholicism might be the particular denomination that first comes to mind – or to Internet search results – in response to the phrase “Stations of the Cross,” the participating sites in this exhibit also include Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches. I am not knowledgeable enough to speak to the relative importance of the artistic iconography to different sects within Christianity; however, the story itself is of course essential to the religion as a whole.

In a Huffington Post article on the exhibit, United Methodist writer Jeania Ree Moore asserts the role of Stations as a call to fellow Christians not just to reflect but also to take action: “As with the ancient Stations of the Cross, a straightforward accounting of what is transpiring in a situation of injustice does indeed shock and shame….As the Lenten theme of penance suggests, suffering and shame disclose truths (some about our own complicity) that should motivate us to act.”

But the exhibit is not intended solely for Christians. As stated on the website, Stations “resonates…for people of various faiths and backgrounds.” Moore writes, weaving in the words of Stations co-curator Rev. Dr. Catriona Lang, “Separate from Easter, Laing identifies the Lenten season as one of the ‘most Christian’ and, perhaps fittingly, also one of the most open and accessible to non-Christians.”

Laing’s fellow co-curator, Dr. Aaron Rosen, is Jewish and is a professor of art and religion. In his podcast on Barnett Newman’s series of paintings (itself known as Stations of the Cross), he remarks, “…it’s interesting that Newman, as a Jew, felt that…the best iconographic tradition in which to speak to these tragedies [the Holocaust and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki] was a Christian one. In choosing the story of Jesus Christ, and particularly the episode of the Passion, Newman was following in the footsteps of a number of important Jewish artists in the modern period.”

Religious diversity can be found among the curators and artists of Stations as well as its visitors. Indeed, freedom of religion is a core theme of one of the displays: the Dahlgren Chapel’s cross was made by the earliest Catholic settlers in Maryland, representing their freedom to worship openly in their new land.

The organization that put it all together, Coexist House, first conceived of a modern Stations of the Cross art pilgrimage last year in London. Coexist House is a London-based effort to build a “landmark, which aims to become the leading global centre for transforming public understanding of the practices and perspectives of the world’s religions” – a museum of interfaith dialogue and learning.

When it comes to asking “Who is this for?” about Coexist House itself, the website states, “Our audience spans all ages, religions, and educational backgrounds. The house will be at once a reflective and spiritual space and an active learning institution, open and accessible to all – believers and non-believers.”

Was Stations accessible to all? The free admission to all 14 sites (including the waiving of the normal admission price at Washington National Cathedral) made for financial accessibility. Limited and/or unclear hours for some locations posed some logistical difficulty, but I did succeed in seeing everything I set out to see.

Accessibility in other senses may be harder to gage. People have varying comfort levels in museums, inside churches, on university campuses, and among crowds at monuments that are on every tourist’s checklist. Art with a religious theme is necessarily accessed in different ways by people within or outside the religion. Ultimately, I found Stations to be most accessible to me insofar as it draws attention to the sufferings of our world today, which call to everyone regardless of one’s faith.



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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Coloring page from Celtic Designs Artist’s Coloring Book, sold at the Washington National Cathedral Gift Shop.



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Coloring and Facts

This month, museums and libraries worldwide have used the Internet and social media to reach virtual audiences everywhere as participants in two online campaigns.

The first, #ColorOurCollections, was spearheaded by the New York Academy of Medicine Library. It officially lasted the week of February 6 through February 10, but the free coloring books from museums and libraries are still available online to download, print, and transform with crayons and markers. All the images come from the institutions’ collections, as they “invit[e] their followers to color and get creative with their collections.”

Everyday artists can use these coloring pages to add hues to two water dragons from a Thai story cloth at the Immigration History Research Center Archives, fill in abstract designs from the Smithsonian Libraries, and bring scenes from Shakespeare plays to life with the Folger Shakespeare Library’s offerings. The images, and our ability to color them as we wish, bring forth human creativity and imagination, as in this decidedly unrealistic illustration below that I colored. Even the scientific images provided by botanic gardens and medical libraries can be distorted from reality with fantastical choice of colors or artistic license in adding one’s own details.

Coloring page from the James Madison University, Special Collections, colored by me. Excerpt from “The Marriage of Kitty” by Harry Persons Taber.

#ColorOurCollections testifies to the role museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions play in drawing audiences into made-up stories and imaginary worlds, with examples such as art, music, and everything in the fiction section. These cultural sites invite visitors to ponder what if, to consider trying their hands at their own creative works, to reap the therapeutic benefits of coloring or of relaxing among art (even while also recognizing the ways that uncomfortable or disturbing art and stories can challenge us to think).

One week later, museums and libraries everywhere again took to social media, this time to contribute to the #DayOfFacts (February 17, 2017) on platforms like Twitter and Instagram. According to the campaign’s mission statement, the purposes of the day were to “show the world that our institutions are still trusted sources for truth and knowledge” and “reaffirm our institutions as welcoming places for everyone.”

The campaign speaks to a particular historical moment in which lies are sold as “alternative facts,” the most powerful leader in the world dismisses the press as “fake news,” and actual examples of fake news are a growing concern online. While museums play an important role in fostering imagination, as in #ColorOurCollections, they are just as vital as sources of historical scholarship and scientific discovery.

In the words of participants themselves: “One of the most important sources of facts in our society is a free and independent press” (Special Collections, Archives, and Rare Books at the University of Missouri Libraries). “A fact is an indisputable observation of a natural or social phenomenon” (The Field Museum). And finally, “facts matter, that information matters, that the open and free exchange of ideas matters” (Gustavus Library).

The facts that emerged on #DayOfFacts were a glorious mix of information pertinent to the debates and misconceptions of our time, data about the benefits of libraries and museums, text about particular objects in collections, and just some fun trivia.

There were no facts about cats serving as naval captains, rescuing other cats from the ocean with life preservers, and getting married. However, there were facts about real cat species along with so many other topics under the sun:

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Museums and the Women’s March

The Women’s March on Washington on January 21, one month ago to this day, was incredible. It was the biggest protest in US history; it spanned cities around the country and countries around the world and all seven continents; more than 1 in 100 Americans participated. I attended in DC with a contingent from my congregation, and there was no marching to be done while I was there, because the march route, and the surrounding blocks and nearby Mall, quickly filled up with people, with no room to move. (I heard that after I left in the early afternoon, there was eventually some marching from Independence Avenue to the White House.)

One of the prettiest signs I saw at the Women's March ("We March for All People")

One of the prettiest signs I saw at the Women’s March

My group stood on the Mall, part of a formidable sea of pink. One young woman in our group had been knitting extra pussyhats, and gave one to me. Some members of our chorus led us in songs. At one point, a nine-year-old in our group started singing “This Little Light of Mine,” and it caught on all around us. (I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there.) Other times, we picked up the chants we heard around us: This is what democracy looks like. Misogyny has got to go. Black lives matter. When they go low, we go high.

None of us could see or hear any of the speakers. We understood there was a stage, but we wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything about it. Crowds were overwhelming, socks were wet, shoes were muddy, stomachs were growling, cell phone networks were spotty, and one tablet had to keep six or seven children entertained. If we had been paying concertgoers or sports spectators, we probably would have felt we didn’t get our money’s worth. But here we were part of a historic moment, making our voices heard and getting galvanized for what would prove to be a very trying month to come. And the signs alone made it all worth it.

What role did museums play in this occasion?

Before the march. To prepare for the march, knitting artists got busy and made what would become an ocean of pussyhats – so many hats that yarn stores experienced pink-yarn-shortages. In many cases, knitting became a social event, with knitting parties popping up like the one held at KMAC Museum in Kentucky.

During the march. On the National Mall, we were surrounded by museums. A few museums, such as the National Air and Space Museum, Sewall-Belmont House, National Museum of the American Indian, and National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), joined restaurants, non-profits, and houses of worship to serve as official welcome centers during the event. NMWA also offered free admission for the weekend.

Women's March on Washington, with National Museum of the American Indian in the background

Women’s March on Washington, with National Museum of the American Indian in the background

After the march. Museums around the world, including the National Museum of American History and the Virginia Historical Society, are collecting signs from the march. The Fuller Craft Museum in Massachusetts and the Michigan State University Museum are asking for examples of pussyhats. Who knows what exhibits we will see commemorating the march 25 years from now?

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Ollie and Olivia

Ollie is the National Zoo’s bobcat who recently made headlines by escaping her enclosure, possibly by crawling through a hole in the mesh fence, and disappearing for about three days until she was found back on the zoo’s campus near the Bird House. After she was spotted on zoo grounds, zoo staff set up a crate “trap” with “goodies” – and she walked into the trap and gobbled up some of the treats. Typical cat probably decided she was hungry and secretly missed her caretakers. Of course, then she had to go to the vet (where she was declared to be in good health after her adventures), which she probably hated like a typical cat would.

Olivia is one of my family’s housecats, or as she would have you believe, the empress of the world and queen of the jungle. Since her official first name is Olivia, it would be perfectly logical if, like the bobcat, she also went by Ollie, but instead we call her things like Moo Moo and Pretty Pretty Princess. She too has been known to escape, sometimes in the split second that the front door is open for a human to pass through, once by crawling under the cat fence. She always comes back a few hours later, when she decides she’s hungry and secretly misses her family. This all happens when she isn’t getting stuck in the ductwork in the ceiling, stealing her brothers’ food, or hissing at someone for existing in the same universe as her.

On the National Zoo’s website, I learned that Olivia is around the weight of the smallest bobcats, and the Zoo’s bobcat photos show a resemblance between Olivia and her bobcat relatives. (Olivia, being the prettiest girl in the universe, is of course more beautiful.) However, the Zoo states that bobcats “stalk their prey with unparalleled patience,” while Olivia is known to be quite impatient when she is ready for her breakfast or dinner.

In reading the articles on Ollie’s escape and return, it was clear how relieved and overjoyed zoo staff felt when she came back safe and sound. We humans who love our Olivia to the moon and back feel just as overjoyed to have her around.

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Recent Resistance Reads

First, here is the text of the White House’s statement on the firing of Sally Yates, the “weak” and “very weak” acting Attorney General who “betrayed” the Department of Justice after she instructed its attorneys not to defend the executive order banning travel and immigration to the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries and suspending the admission of refugees.

Second, here is a portion of the transcript of Yates’s confirmation hearing as Deputy Attorney General in 2015, in which Senator Jeff Sessions (Donald Trump’s nominee for Attorney General) grilled her on whether she would defend the Constitution and the law in the face of an unlawful order from the president, “no matter how headstrong they might be.” Yates assured Sessions of her belief that the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General must give impartial legal advice, and must not follow unlawful orders from above.

Moving on to the museum world, the American Alliance of Museums issued a statement in response to the executive order, saying in tempered terms that it is “gravely concerned” while emphasizing the importance of “welcoming international perspectives” in the museum world.

A more forcefully worded petition opposing the travel ban has garnered the signatures of over 8,000 academics and counting, including Nobel laureates and other major award winners. Among the signers’ affiliations are museums, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the Museum of Modern Art, and the American Museum of Natural History.

USHMM today published these words on the restrictions, reminding readers that the United States largely turned away European Jews because of “antisemitic and xenophobic attitudes, harsh economic conditions, and national security fears” even as these refugees were fleeing the Holocaust.

This article reports on the Peace Ball held on the eve of the inauguration, hosted by Busboys and Poets (a coffeeshop/restaurant/bar/bookstore/event venue) at a larger venue, the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Busboys and Poets stage, 14th and V location, photographed in 2012. A bigger space was needed to stage the 2017 Peace Ball, which was held at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Busboys and Poets stage, 14th and V location, photographed in 2012. A bigger space was needed to stage the 2017 Peace Ball, which was held at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

There are memes going around social media expressing a sort of endeared surprise at the role that employees of the National Park Service have taken in support of the environment, free expression, and striving for impartial science. I am not surprised, though – not if these park rangers were trained in the traditions of being a change agent and embracing the lofty and saving the planet. Not when NPS’s mission is to be “unimpaired” in preserving parks for the “enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” Jonathan Jarvis may not have had a spotless tenure as former director of NPS, but his praise for the resistance within NPS gets to the heart of what rangers and educators do – and it’s more than just telling visitors what time the site closes.

Many, many religious communities and organizations have risen to the occasion in denouncing the executive order on immigration and travel, and affirming their commitment to helping refugees and welcoming people of all faiths. Over 250 Jewish congregations (including Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in DC, which I visited as a Weekly Museum Visit) have signed onto the Welcome Campaign.

Foundry United Methodist Church, where I have spent time as a volunteer packing donated books to send to prisoners, has a Sacred Resistance section on its website. This page is updated with statements and suggested actions in response to governmental decisions that are fundamentally incompatible with the church’s values.

Peace Pole outside Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington, DC

Peace Pole outside Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington, DC. The church’s website offers concrete suggestions for “Sacred Resistance.”

My own congregation is one of many signers to this statement by the Know Your Neighbor: Multifatih Encounters campaign, composed of a variety of religious and humanistic traditions.

And finally, for a longer read, George Orwell’s novel 1984 rose to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list since the current presidential administration started. Here, the New York Times reviews 1984 in the context of 2017.

I welcome additions to this list in the comments!

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A Visit to Gateway to NOAA

I had been meaning to visit Gateway to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for a while. Small, nearby, and open only during normal business hours, it seemed like the perfect lunch break activity on a teleworking day.

Never did I imagine that I would be visiting at a time when all federal government hiring was frozen, let alone the other eerie reports I am hearing. (The following list is not meant to be definitive reporting of events, as there is a lot of uncertainty as to exactly what is going on, and sifting through all the news and unofficial reports is beyond the scope of this post. But it’s hard not to be chilled by stories of all Environmental Protection Agency grants being frozen; all EPA studies being subject to review by the presidential administration going forward; agencies and national parks receiving orders to cease all communications with the public, including posting social media updates; and intimations that federal workers themselves are being censored in their work and non-work communications.)

Gateway to NOAA museum in Silver Spring, Maryland

Gateway to NOAA museum in Silver Spring, Maryland

Both the official NOAA Twitter account (@NOAA) and its rogue version (@altNOAA) have been tweeting this week. @altNOAA is one of many unofficial Twitter accounts that sprang up in the last few days so that federal employee scientists could have an anonymous, unofficial vehicle for communicating with the public in the actual or possible case that the official account is censored.

With all the current fogginess around the science-based government agencies, it felt especially important to pay a visit to Gateway to NOAA today during my lunch break, so I finally went inside the building that I had walked past countless times before.

At the museum, one of the first interactive screens allows the visitor to explore the variety of jobs that make up the agency. I read about an educator at a marine sanctuary, who says that career opportunities at NOAA are “as deep as the ocean itself.” (Make NOAA hire again…)

The small exhibit space includes information on the science behind weather prediction and ocean protection, a timeline highlighting the 200-some year history of NOAA, and a running theme of focusing on the future in matters like climate change and the depletion of fish populations. There is also art: photography inside the single room, and Ray Kaskey’s The Hand sculpture outside the building.

The Hand by Ray Kaskey, outside NOAA building in Silver Spring, MD

The Hand by Ray Kaskey, outside NOAA building in Silver Spring, MD

This little, free admission museum is one example of how NOAA disseminates information to the public – an example I am lucky to live near. Their many marine sanctuaries serve as additional informal learning sites. But not everyone can visit these places in person, and NOAA’s other avenues of education and outreach – including its online resources for virtual audiences – are a crucial chunk of its work.

I’ll end this post by quoting words of inspiration from one of @altNOAA’s tweets: “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Resist.”

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