A few photos from my immersion in Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the Hirshhorn.
A few photos from my immersion in Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the Hirshhorn.
In the spirit (hehe) of exploring religious museums and sacred places, below are just a few examples I have visited during travels in years past.
Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio (Rome, Italy)
In summer 2015, one of the many churches my father and I visited in Italy was the Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio (Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius). Among all the cathedrals and chapels we visited on that vacation, a few stood out, like the famous St. Peter’s and Sistine Chapel of Vatican City, but also some of the lesser-known sites. Sant’Ignazio, which first opened in 1650, was memorable for the optical illusions employed in painting its ceilings.
Andrea Pozzo attempted through his frescoes to make the ceiling look higher and more grandiose than it actually is, with a colorful scene of St. Ignatius and other figures ascending into heaven via a cloud-filled sky. The church also features a “dome” that is actually just a flat circle.
Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue (Newport, Rhode Island)
That same summer, my family also visited Rhode Island to see my mother’s stomping grounds: her first two houses, her first workplace (an ice cream shop), her high school, the church where my parents got married, the library where she wrote her name in a book as a child. While my father and siblings explored the little shops of Newport, my mother and I attempted to visit Touro Synagogue. She could remember a school field trip during which she was awed by the light inside the building.
Alas, when we arrived, the synagogue itself had closed for the day, but we were able to visit the Loeb Visitors Center. Its exhibits explained the history of the first Jewish settlors in Newport, from Portugal, in the 1600s, and the construction of the synagogue, which was completed in 1763. A common theme of the exhibition space was the idea of religious liberty – an ideal that was in many ways not realized, but that was especially manifest in Rhode Island in comparison to the other colonies.
This Is the Place Heritage Park (Salt Lake City, Utah)
Many lifetimes ago (i.e. 2006), I visited This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City. My visit mostly consisted of walking around and looking at the monument, which commemorates Brigham Young’s 1847 arrival at the location with fellow Mormon pioneers.
However, the park’s website lists a plethora of activities beyond just viewing the monument itself. Emphasizing FUN (in all caps), the website provides details on pioneer games and chores, farm animals, a Native American village, and mini-train rides.
The Awakening Museum (Santa Fe, New Mexico)
In 2005, a friend and I took a trip to New Mexico, where we immersed ourselves in The Awakening Museum that then existed in Santa Fe. (The building later turned into a cooking school, after apparent marital and financial troubles experienced by the painter of The Awakening, Jean-Claude Gaugy, and his then-wife.)
The Awakening was a single work of art that filled the walls and ceiling of one room, surrounding the viewer with biblical imagery. Outside was a quiet and peaceful meditation garden. Although the museum is no longer there, and I don’t remember the specifics of the audio tour all these years later, the memory of the vivid-yet-tranquil museum experience has stayed with me.
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.
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.
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 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 catholic.org 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.
Coloring page from Celtic Designs Artist’s Coloring Book, sold at the Washington National Cathedral Gift Shop.
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.
#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:
— theNAT (@SDNHM) February 17, 2017
— Nashville Zoo (@NashvilleZoo) February 17, 2017
— DPLA (@dpla) February 17, 2017
— Riverside Art Museum (@RAMriverside) February 17, 2017
— Oakland Museum of CA (@oaklandmuseumca) February 18, 2017
— Hickory Hill (@HHEducation) February 18, 2017
A group of ducks is called a team
A group of caterpillars is an army
A groups of mice is a mischief
A group of otters is a romp#dayoffacts
— UMMusofNatHist (@UMMNH) February 17, 2017
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.)
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.
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?
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.