Living Art Museums


What does a living museum look like?

There are natural science sites that have living collections: zoos, aquariums, arboretums, parks, botanic gardens, and nature centers. Specimens are not mounted in a frame and cared for by conservators. Rather, they live, grow, reproduce, get sick, and die; they may move around (or even move out of view); they need to be fed or watered.

Then there are living history museums. The term “living history museum” is most commonly used as a synonym for or subset of “open-air museum” (a place like Colonial Williamsburg, where a historical lifestyle is portrayed beyond the walls of just one building and costumed interpretation abounds). Less common is the use of the term to describe destinations that are both working buildings and historic sites that attract visitors. Examples are my workplace (the United States Capitol), along with several other government buildings as well as historic houses of worship, that are still in use for their earlier purposes*, but are also historic sites, often with curators, docents, and/or exhibits. The state capitol buildings of California, Colorado, and New York are all advertised as “living museums.”

Part of the thrill of visiting such sites is that you might see a vote in Congress or catch a glimpse of Bo the First Dog. Part of the frustration of visiting such sites is that your tour may be truncated because a ceremony is taking place in the Rotunda, or a service is going on in the sanctuary. In addition to whatever art, architecture, and documents form the collection, the chance to see live people and live events, individuals making history, motivates people to visit.

What about a living art museum? Does such a thing exist?

I would argue that community art centers serve as living art museums: places where artists make and exhibit their own work, or places where living artists speak to audiences about their work, or places that have a collection of creative minds rather than a collection of creations.

Lia Halloran speaks about her photography in Artishpere's Dome Theatre

Lia Halloran speaks about her photography in Artishpere’s Dome Theatre

Artisphere in Arlington, Virginia was Weekly Museum Visit #15 in my first series of Weekly Museum Visits, and the first site about which I had any doubts (I counted it anyway). Was this space really an informal learning environment in the same sense as the museums and gardens that I had visited in previous weeks? When I visited, I saw an exhibit of works of art, and I heard one artist, Lia Halloran, speak about her work. Artisphere functions as a community space for a variety of visual and performing arts. The galleries exhibit mostly work that is for sale; there is a gallery that showcases work by local artists in Arlington, and a Works-in-Progress Gallery that allows viewers to watch and critique the process of making art. On its website, Artisphere calls itself “a new breed of urban arts center” and a “less formal environment” (less formal than what is not entirely clear).  I hesitate to call Artisphere a museum only insofar as the language on its website suggests it wishes to be seen as a new, less formal alternative to the traditional museum. However, for my purposes of visiting a museum or museum-like place every week, it met the criteria.

Artist Nathan Bond talks about his work at the Torpedo Factory

Artist Nathan Bond talks about his work at the Torpedo Factory

The Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia, refers to itself as “a living museum of fine art in progress” on a printed brochure. This site is another place where I have heard artists (such as Nathan Bond in the Target Gallery) speak; I have also chatted informally with artists in their studios while petting their dogs. Artists rent studios in which they work, and in which they decide for themselves what gets displayed. The lived experience of creating, exhibiting, and selling art ensures that visiting the Torpedo Factory will not be a static experience from one day to the next. Also a historic site in its own right, the Torpedo Factory has an exhibit area about its role in manufacturing weapons during World War II.

Joyce Tennyson gives a presentation about her photography at VisArts

Joyce Tenneson gives a presentation about her photography at VisArts

VisArts in Rockville, Maryland is another location where I heard an artist speak about her work. Joyce Tenneson, whose images of flowers I love, spoke and presented a slideshow of her photography.  Like the Torpedo Factory, VisArts rents studio space to artists. Although the artists have access to their rented studios 24 hours a day, they are required to work in their studios at least 15 hours per week during the time VisArts is open to the public. This requirement offers visitors the opportunity to see the creation process and talk to artists.

Of course, any art museum can invite artists to give lectures or even to demonstrate the creative process, and many do. (In writing about museum categories this month, I keep coming back to the idea that all categories are blurred.) However, the three sites above are different in many ways from the typical art museum, and function largely as living museums of art.

*Recently I have had intriguing discussions with colleagues about the phrase “in use.” All rooms that visitors see are in use, by their very virtue of being seen by visitors. The rooms are used to educate and inspire audiences about history, and to show what the rooms looked like at the time that major events took place there. However, not all rooms are in use for the same purpose as in the past – just as people are not currently sleeping in the beds at most historic house museums, the Supreme Court no longer meets in the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the United States Capitol.

*

August’s blog theme is Museum Categories.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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