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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Peeps in the Museums Roundup

Among this year’s entries in the Washington Post’s Peeps diorama contest are the usual references to current events, celebrities, and cultural trends: the Keystone “Peepline” and the measles outbreak at Disneyland, Kim Kardashian and Katy Perry, the Ice Bucket Challenge and the color of the dress. Yet many other dioramas depict pivotal moments of the past.

David Deep (who perhaps should change his name to David Peep for Peeps-related matters) and Erica Webber submitted The Assassination of Peepraham Lincoln, which shows Ford Theatre’s most famous and most tragic event. More than one diorama references “Apeepomattox.”

We the Peeple by Karen Wootton and Aaron Klebanoff shows Peeps adorned with white wigs signing the Constitution, inspired by Howard Chandler Christy’s painting Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, which shows a historic moment that took place in Independence Hall and which is on display in the United States Capitol. Meanwhile, We the Peeps (by Rachel Hirz, Andie Hirz, and Teresa Lovelace) also shows the signing of the Constitution, with the Christy painting in the background.

In Edmund Peepus Bridge: March 7, 1965 by Keith Lyndaker, Lini Lyndaker and Rachelle Schlabach, Peeps lead the march for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery, AL. Chloe Simpson, Colt Simpson, and Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson help viewers remember the Alamo with Peep in the Heart of Texas.

A Peep diorama at the 2014 National Book Festival, depicting a scene from Harry Potter

A Peep diorama at the 2014 National Book Festival, depicting a scene from Harry Potter

Besides these historic scenes, we also get to see an art museum (A Trip to the National Peeptrait Gallery by Lee Ann Zies, Debbie Zies, Scott Smith, Patricia Milon and Barbara Milon) and a national park (Yellowstone National Peeps Park by Juliet Line, Anne Apynys and Christopher Line).

Several dioramas are literary, re-creating scenes from The Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings.

Here are links to the “Top 50 Peeps dioramas for 2015” as well as “The best of kids’ Peeps dioramas.

Happy Easter!

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Valve Inventor at Medical Center

I was recently at the Medical Center-NIH Metro, with a little bit of time to fill before a doctor’s appointment nearby in Bethesda. I entered the National Institutes of Health campus and expressed interest in seeing the museum.

The security officer gave me a good-natured laugh. “We don’t have a museum!”

Oh dear. “But – your website says – the Stetten Museum in Building 10-”

She shrugged. “Okay, you can go to Building 10 and see if there’s a museum.” She gave me a visitor’s badge and a map and had me walk through the metal detector.

NIH’s website lists three museum exhibits in Building 10, and three exhibits each located in one of three other buildings on the NIH campus. I started with the first exhibit listed, which is also the first one I came upon in Building 10 (Innovation and Invention: NIH and Prosthetic Heart Valves).

It is a small exhibit in the lobby of a building that is clearly used primarily for something other than museum exhibits. I read about the people who invented various iterations of the heart valve, continuously trying to improve the invention and save lives, and I read about the people who benefited from these advances.

Work of art outside Building 10 on NIH campus

Work of art outside Building 10 on NIH campus

I ran out of time before I could find the other two medical exhibits in Building 10, though I did also peruse a series of science-inspired art pieces along a hallway. If I had had more time to spare, I would have loved to see more of the whole NIH campus. I never had a clear sense of exactly where I was and was not allowed to go, so I would have had to balance my curiosity with my desire to be a good visitor and not get in trouble.

NIH’s museum is similar to some other museums that I’ve visited, in the sense that the place is primarily something else, not a museum. Other examples that come to mind from my Weekly Museum Visits are Voice of America and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs Headquarters. I was able to take a tour of both these sites, but they were not places where I could have just walked in at any time during the day, spent as much time there as I wanted, and bought postcards at a gift shop. Instead, I had to sign up for guided tours in advance and show up at an appointed time and stay with the guide at all times. I am pretty sure that mentioning either of these places would elicit that oft-asked question in others: “How do you find out about all these things?” because they are just not on the major-things-to-do-in-DC radar.

On the other hand, there are places like the Capitol Visitor Center and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing that have specific non-museum functions, but also have a popular, well-known, robust museum experience component. These buildings have, as you can imagine, high security, and during the guided tour, staying with your guide is crucial. But there are also exhibit spaces and gift shops you can explore on your own, and brochures and kids’ activities you can take home.

There are interesting places everywhere, to be sure. But the not-so-museum-y-museums do raise a valid question: how welcoming an experience do they provide visitors? As much as I am always eager to explore, and as careful as I am to follow rules, there is still that lingering sense of “am I really supposed to be here?” Should I really be hanging out on the NIH campus when I am neither a medical professional nor a staff member nor a patient?

And I can’t exactly blame NIH for not spending more time making glossy exhibit guides or building a gift shop. (Or, if it already has these things, I can’t blame NIH for not making them more prominent to visitors.) Their business of curing diseases and treating patients does seem a wee bit more important.

So on that day, after spending as much time as I had available looking at valves and paintings, I left NIH, dropped my visitor badge in the hopefully correct receptacle, and walked the half mile to my decidedly un-museum-like doctor’s office, where, like most doctors’ offices, nary a person ever comes just to look at exhibits.

Medical Center-NIH is on the Red Line.

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Sit Down and Rest Ya Feet at Bethesda

The Bethesda Metro station is not near any museum I’ve ever visited, but it is near a lot of other things to do: free festivals throughout the year, art galleries, movie theaters, restaurants that are good for dates and family birthday dinners, as well as stores and doctors’ offices. Without setting foot in any building, you can see art all over Bethesda just walking down the street. Among all the uniquely shaped works are the Poetry Benches.

Poetry Bench in Bethesda

Poetry Bench in Bethesda

The Poetry Benches are scattered throughout downtown Bethesda, and they are bits of color and whimsy on which people can sit. Each one is carved into a curvy shape, painted with images, and emblazoned with a snippet of verse. The benches are fun and cute, and they add something cheerful to bus stops and sidewalks.

One of Silver Spring's Benches on the Block

One of Silver Spring’s Benches on the Block

Bethesda is not the only place on its Metro line, or in its county, that has a series of public art pieces that are also places to sit. Silver Spring is glittered with the mosaic benches known as Benches on the Block, a project of Arts on the Block (a local arts organization for youth). The pastel tiles that the sitter leans his or her back against suggest abstract nature scenes.

The annual Please Sit on the Art project is another reason to love Takoma.

The annual Please Sit on the Art project is another reason to love Takoma.

In Takoma Park (and spilling over to also include Takoma DC), the annual series of reCYCLE (Please Sit on the Art) began in 2013. These pieces are all one-of-a-kind, and some are rather more comfortable to use as actual seats than others. (One work, despite the title of the exhibit as a whole, had a sign advising viewers not to sit on it.) Some have been animal shaped: butterfly, spider, octopus. Others have been fashioned to evoke games, traffic signs, seatbelts, and fairy tales.

The one downside to trying to go out and photograph all these pieces is that there might be someone sitting on them (and I just want a picture of the bench itself, not a photo of a potentially annoyed stranger just minding their own business). But the presence of people on the seats indicates that the pieces are serving their purpose as functional pieces of art that people notice and interact with.

Bethesda is on the Red Line.

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Champion of Human Rights at Friendship Heights

“Next station stop, Friendship Heights,” the Metro train driver announced once. “Last station stop in the District of Columbia. Also the first station stop in the state of Maryland.”

He was correct – with multiple entrances along the DC-Maryland border in NW DC, the Friendship Heights Metro is in both jurisdictions.

Gandhi Memorial Center

Gandhi Memorial Center

If you walk southwest along Western Avenue from the Metro, you will reach the Gandhi Memorial Center in about one mile, on the Bethesda, Maryland side of the street. Maintained by the not-for-profit Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Foundation, the Gandhi Memorial Center, according to the website, “houses headquarters for the Foundation, a library and special meeting rooms for lectures and films depicting the life and activities of Mahatma Gandhi and the cultural heritage of India.” It is staffed entirely by volunteers.

I visited the Center in 2014, when it was showing the art exhibit Akshara by Shanthi Chandrasekar. In this space dedicated to a historical figure and his culture and religion, an art exhibit was on display that explored the scientific underpinnings of language. It was a lot of interdisciplinary packed into a relatively small space.

On the day I visited, the artist herself happened to be there. She engaged me in interesting conversation about her work and its inspiration, like languages whose alphabets are ordered based on the degree to which the mouth opens when making the sound. In the course of our conversation, Chandrasekar brought up an idea that has stayed with me: that human institutions (such as the dowry and the caste system) start out with good intentions but then become corrupted. This outlook was different from what has generally been my belief, that humans’ intentions, as well as our ability to implement those intentions and achieve the desired outcome, gradually improve over time.

Is the Gandhi Memorial Center a museum? An art gallery? I ran a search on the Center’s website and could not find any references to these terms. It is, I suppose, most accurately described as a specialized library with a few permanent sculptures, and two rooms adorned with temporary art exhibits, whose all-volunteer staff puts on cultural programs and puts out a regular publication that focuses on a spiritual understanding of Gandhi and big ideas like truth and peace. Perhaps it is appropriate that a site dedicated to these ideals is located near a Metro station that has a positive ideal in its own name.

Friendship Heights is on the Red Line.

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