Seven Recent Reads: #MuseumWorkersSpeak and Pride

As a disclaimer, I love visiting museums all year long, and the palpable love and support at the Capital Pride parade make me suspect that it is the DC area’s most favorite celebration of the year. That said, advocacy work requires turning a reflective eye inward. Among the fascinating chats, articles, and blog posts I’ve read on these subjects, I had trouble narrowing down this list to just seven examples.

  1. I recently read all the #MuseumWorkersSpeak chats listed at this Storify link. #MuseumWorkersSpeak really took off as a hashtag and a movement in 2015, a couple of years after I’d stopped being a museum worker. Though I was briefly involved in the local in-real-life group, it never seemed quite right to attend #MuseumWorkersSpeak meetings when I could no longer speak as a museum worker. Yet, in reading the chats, I saw so much that resonated, such as institutions with lofty missions and visions but less-than-lofty internal practices.
  2. Another chat not listed at the above link looks at celebrations of the 2015 Supreme Court decision on marriage equality through the lens of #MuseumWorkersSpeak. Among topics raised: even if a museum is welcoming and celebratory on social media, that doesn’t necessarily translate to being an inclusive workplace in terms of policies or atmosphere.

    all are welcome on the side of love

    All Are Welcome on the Side of Love. Multiple, diverse religious organizations were among the many participants in Capital Pride 2017.

  3. I have read this 2014 article from Jacobin on the insidious side of the “Do What You Love” (DWYL) mantra a few times, most recently when I saw it linked in one of the #MuseumWorkersSpeak chats. “By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness,” author Miya Tokumitsu writes, “DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it….The hallowed path of the entrepreneur always offers this way out of disadvantaged beginnings, excusing the rest of us for allowing those beginnings to be as miserable as they are.”
  4. By clicking from link to link beginning with a #MuseumWorkersSpeak chat, I ended up at this post at the Leadership Matters blog that discusses the issue of museum salaries. Among quite a few comments, one commenter reported needing both a trust fund and a high-earning spouse in order to stay in the museum field.
  5. On a related note, a 2014 post on the Center for the Future of Museums’ blog (managed as part of the American Alliance of Museums) stated: “we have, in effect, an oversupply of highly qualified people willing to underbid each other in return for the non-financial benefits of museum work.” The depression of wages seems inevitable when the lowest bid is nothing, with the proliferation of volunteers and unpaid interns.
  6. Mal Blum’s piece on being asked to donate a musical set to a Pride event in New York City echoes one thread from the #MuseumWorkersSpeak chats: being asked to work not for monetary currency, but for “exposure.” Blum points out another problematic layer in this particular instance: “New York City Pride is asking local LGBTQ artists to donate their labor to their massive event, while still presumably paying many thousands of dollars to a straight celebrity to headline it.”
  7. One #MuseumWorkersSpeak chat participant linked this blog post from 2013 on whether a museum studies degree will boost one’s chances of getting a museum job (in the context of the UK). Author Mark Carnall made this remark that stuck with me: that studying museums in a formal education setting helps students understand “why museums do the things they do rather than why the museum I work at does the things it does.” This perspective was one aspect of graduate school that I especially appreciated; it is also a distinction that can be applied to many fields of work beyond museums.
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Naming and Renaming

When I was in kindergarten and first grade, I attended an elementary school with an alcoholic beverage in its name. A few years later, a student group successfully pushed for a name change that would instead invoke nature’s bounty in local suburbia (nature which, incidentally, would be on its way out in favor of more development in a couple of decades). If my family had not moved, I may well have been part of the pro-name-change student group; it sounds like the kind of enrichment project I was doing in fourth grade.

I’m not sure it’s possible to rename a place without some opposition; after all, someone had some reason for coming up with the original name in the first place. Personally, I am not a big fan of renaming buildings to reflect corporate sponsorship. In other cases, the tensions in renaming come from questions around how we commemorate history.

In 2015, the Obama administration announced a name change to the tallest mountain in the United States, announcing that Alaska’s mountain known as Mount McKinley would henceforth be called Denali, like the national park encompassing it. The outcry came from elected officials as well as Donald Trump, while Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) praised the decision. Those who opposed the change seemed to ignore the fact that Denali was the original name of the mountain, given by the Athabascan people; the state of Alaska had been pushing for the name Denali for years; and monuments and a presidential library honor President McKinley, who had no real connection to Alaska, in his native state of Ohio.

Despite Trump’s 2015 tweet that he would change the name back to Mount McKinley if elected as president, current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke expressed his support for the name Denali at the beginning of the trip to Alaska that he began a few days ago.

Meanwhile, as cities in the south grapple with what to do with their Confederate statues and flags (leave them in place? Move them to a history museum?), names of buildings and streets are also under reconsideration even as far north as Connecticut. Earlier in 2017, Yale University made the decision to rename Calhoun College to honor the late Yale alumna Grace Murray Hopper, a computer scientist and Navy rear admiral who (unlike John C. Calhoun) did not call slavery “a positive good” or “the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.”

Student Dasia Moore’s article on Yale’s decision details the amount of thought and consideration that went into addressing the renaming question: “Beyond community engagement, the committee read through thousands of pages on the history and theory of public memory and renaming.” In the end, the committee developed a list of specific criteria for determining whether a name change is appropriate, with the university’s mission statement ultimately driving the discussion.

More local for me is Jefferson Davis Highway in Virginia. In northern Virginia, the city of Alexandria is prepared to rename its stretch of the highway, and an advisory group will in the near future seek proposals for new names.

Museums and parks will likely have to wrestle with these issues as contemporary eyes continue to give a longer look at names and monuments that do not reflect what are understood to be shared human values. There will be proposed name changes to parks and landmarks, and museums may well be providing a new and nuanced home to the statues that once stood on pedestals outside of city halls. Like Yale University made sure to do, I am hopeful that the organizations and agencies entrusted with these changes will look to their missions as they make these decisions.

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Rock the Vote, Mock the Boat

One of the roles of museums and other informal learning venues is to get people excited about their content. Among the many ways that museums try to engage audiences in the age of social media, sites with living collections have used online polls to let folks vote on names for the newborn additions to those living collections.

At the National Zoo, baby animals such as pandas are named by vote, with an invitation to the public to choose among a short list of pre-selected name options. When two bald eagles hatched at the National Arboretum, the United States Department of Agriculture, which maintains the Arboretum, solicited submissions of name ideas from the public. (The USDA would ultimately choose the names.)

The United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), specifically its British Antarctic Survey (BAS), research Antarctica, a place that isn’t aiming to attract everyday museum visitors and tourists in the same way as, say, the National Zoo in DC. Nevertheless, the agency uses outreach and technology to educate audiences about its scientific work. For example, you can play this online game in which you adjust snowfall and temperatures to reach optimal ice flow for hungry penguins.

Another attempt at reaching virtual audiences occurred in March 2016, when NERC invited individuals to suggest, and vote on, names for a new research ship. Former BBC reporter James Hand suggested, in jest, Boaty McBoatface, and interest in the name soared. Insofar as the naming campaign’s goal was to get people aware and engaged, the name Boaty McBoatface made headlines and propelled the as-yet-unnamed boat into the news, including on this side of the pond.

Writers (in the UK, who would know better than I) have written that Boaty McBoatface is a prime example of irreverent, subversive British humor humour. Dominic Utton wrote, “what this fleeting saga beautifully highlights is the British sense of humour at its very finest. It shows our unique ability to reduce serious situations to silliness; and to use a rebellious sort of facetiousness to prick pomposity and celebrate the surreal.”

Hand, the reporter who first suggested the name, “apologised profusely” for the transgression of submitting a name not worthy of the majestic ship.

In the end, Boaty McBoatface won in an avalanche, but the winning entry was not chosen by NERC.  The official name of the polar research ship is RRS Sir David Attenborough. As a sort of consolation prize (participation trophy?), NERC announced that one of the ship’s remotely operated submarines would be Boaty McBoatface.

The voting Internet public was not on board with this decision. “Let’s have a public vote.. then disregard the winner because we don’t like it.. because that’s fair,” tweeted one disappointed Boaty-supporter.  Though the fine print on NERC’s website had said that ultimately NERC would choose the moniker, voters had been under the impression that they would be naming the boat by majority rule.

A few months later, in June 26, the United Kingdom again held a vote. The referendum on whether to leave the European Union – Brexit – has been compared to the Boaty fiasco.

Called a farce by some, the Leave votes carried the day – and led to a spike in Google searches within the UK the day after the election on what the EU is and what happens if the UK leaves. Two new portmanteaus, Bregret and Regrexit, emerged to describe the regret that leave voters felt when they actually won. As one voter stated, “I’m shocked that we voted for Leave, I didn’t think that was going to happen. I didn’t think my vote was going to matter too much because I thought we were just going to remain.”

Amid all the desire to backtrack the leave votes, a petition for a second referendum gained more than 4 million signatures, and Member of Parliament Paul Flynn wrote that Brexit should be given as much respect as Boaty: ”Referendums should no longer trap governments….Wales is already regretting its decision to vote Leave.”

All the regret in the world did not change the fact that, unlike the #NameOurShip campaign, the Brexit vote was one in which the majority ruled. (While it was not technically legally binding, when Parliament debated the petition for a second referendum, their response read in part, “The Prime Minister and Government have been clear that this was a once in a generation vote and, as the Prime Minister has said, the decision must be respected.”) No doubt, the Remain voters must have found it surreal to have lost to people who were now coming forward to say they never meant to win, that it was just a “protest vote.”

Brexit, fueled in part by themes of nationalism and anti-immigration sentiment, was posited as a warning to the United States, with our own major election coming up four and a half months later. Donald Trump secured enough delegates for the Republican presidential nomination in May 2016 (on my birthday, no less), and officially accepted the nomination at the Republican National Convention in July.

Trump had been considered a joke or a farce for years. During Barack Obama’s presidency, I was mostly aware of Trump as a fringe figure, a reality TV host who insisted on dragging out his bizarre birther accusations for years. He briefly entered the crowded contest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, eliciting such reactions such these words from Karl Rove in a Fox News interview:

“[H]is full embrace of the birther issue means that he’s off there in the nutty right and is now an inconsequential candidate….The American people aren’t going to be hiring him, and certainly, the Republicans are not going to be hiring him in the Republican primary.”

Rove’s prediction proved only to be correct for the 2012 primary. By 2015, Trump was again officially vying for the nomination. Again, he was not taken seriously, within or outside his party. Immediately after joining the race, a Salon article, criticizing both Trump and the Republican party as a whole, predicted, “He won’t win the nomination, but that’s not his goal, nor is it the goal of most of the field.”

In August 2015, two months after announcing his campaign, a column in U.S. News and World Report described him as a “bad joke” and continued to say:

“the American people will get the joke: Donald Trump is not emotionally or substantively fit to be president of the United States….He may be appealing as a protest figure….But, ultimately, we are electing a president…”

Even as Trump blindsided everyone by taking the Republican nomination, despite an ever-growing list of major members of his own party disavowing him, he continued not to be seriously considered a possibility. The Democratic Party’s candidate, Hillary Clinton, was expected to win in a landslide.

To the shock of the watching world, Clinton did not win by a landslide, but amassed around 3 million more votes than Trump (winning the popular vote, but not by what I would call a landslide, though CNN called it a swamp). Meanwhile, Trump won the electoral vote and thus the presidency. Like the name Boaty McBoatface, Clinton did not prevail despite being chosen by the highest number of people. Clinton was expected to win with a mandate; instead, Trump won with a technicality.

Writers on the Brexit debacle had warned of the risks of voting to make a protest or statement. Voters who did support Trump offered reasons such as:

  • “I can deal with a somewhat low four years, but I couldn’t deal with a supreme court that swings liberal and I couldn’t deal with losing gun rights. I hope the years fly by and that he will do as little damage as possible. I am deeply saddened by these options and I am not proud of our president in the least.”
  • “I hope for a sincere shake-up and a breath of fresh air. Trump is a slimy scumbag, who wears it like a badge of honour….Countries may be laughing at us but it took some balls to elect Trump last night. I don’t think a single person who casted a vote for him felt good about it.”
  • “Trump is a self-made man. Regardless of getting a hefty loan from his father, he used that money to make a name and legacy for himself.” (Note: An analysis by Fortune concluded that Trump would have an additional $10 billion if he’d simply invested what he started with in index funds.)

For what it’s worth, polls show that most Trump voters do not regret their votes. Nevertheless, enough Trump voters publicly voiced regret –  beginning many weeks before he took office – to spurn the creation of the Trumpgrets Twitter and Tumblr.

In the days between November 9, 2016 and January 20, 2017, there were efforts to undo the outcome of the election in the form of the Hamilton Electors and their supporters among the citizenry. The argument was that the very reason for having an electoral rather than a popular vote was to give the electors a last-ditch opportunity to save the country from disastrous results. (I did not subscribe to this argument, and held no belief that it would lead anywhere, but I did find this early form of resistance fascinating.)

The argument of the Hamilton Electors was, in a way, similar to the reasoning behind NERC not choosing Boaty McBoatface for its stately research vessel: the people had spoken, but their decision simply would not do for such a serious situation.

Now it’s May, more than six months since the election, and the resistance continues. So do the Trumpgrets (I didn’t think my husband would be deported, I didn’t think my access to healthcare under the Affordable Care Act would be taken away, I didn’t think leopards would eat my face, as the meme goes).

The UK is preparing to begin Brexit negotiations on June 19, just about one year after voting for this outcome.

And Boaty McBoatface, the little yellow submarine, has begun exploring oceanic depths near the South Pole – and in another twist, there are actually three little yellow submarines named Boaty McBoatface.  RSS Sir David Attenborough is still being built.

After the British boats were named in 2016, Parliament and NERC found themselves in discussions on whether #NameOurShip was a success, and how to keep the interest going in polar research. Atlantic writer Uri Friedman quipped, “What’s the point of getting people involved if their involvement stops at voting in an online poll? It’s a bit like asking someone on a date without gaming out what you’ll do if you get a ‘yes.’” While it sounds like the results of these initial discussions were a bit nebulous, today the National Oceanography Centre is harnessing the cartoonish-ness of Boaty and using inflatable models to teach young audiences about Antarctic research expeditions.

It is a challenge for those promoting civic engagement: how do we get people to vote? (Note that only 60% of eligible voters voted in the 2016 American presidential election.) How do we get everyday people interested in science, climate change, the environment, museums and parks? Would a boat or a Boaty by any other name enjoy as much fame?

The big red boat (once constructed) and the little yellow submarine(s) will live exciting nautical lives exploring the farthest reaches of the world, after an online vote that probably could have been handled better by the officials running it. But votes on who should lead a nation or whether a nation should be part of a larger union have much more serious consequences, which will continue to unfold over the next months and years.

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#wesembodiment Photo Challenge

My congregation is doing a Photo Challenge this month, in which everyone is given the same set of 31 words or phrases (well, 30, because one of them is used twice), one for each day of the month. What you are supposed to do is take a photo each day that embodies the word for that day, and post it on social media. Many people are following these directions, and I am enjoying their photographic interpretations of each day’s word on Facebook.

For me, the challenge of photographing and posting something every single day seemed a little daunting, and I have not followed the directions. But I did go through photos already posted in this blog, and I made a collage with a photo for each of the 31 days.


  1. Happy. The late great Duncan swimming at Patapsco Valley State Park – Daniels Area. The very definition of happy.
  2. Here Now. From the tour I took many years ago of the historic headquarters of the American Red Cross.
  3. Grateful. This photo is from my visit to Fallo, Italy in 2015 for the annual Festa festivities. I am grateful to my father and my very extended family for introducing me to this beautiful tiny mountain town, the only place where my last name is common.
  4. Generous. A Little Free Library, one whimsical example of the generosity of everyday people in sharing books with neighbors and strangers.
  5. Free. Though President Lincoln’s Cottage was not literally free to visit, in terms of admission price, the content of the house tour and the exhibit had quite a bit to do with freedom. Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation while staying at this house in the summer (he was still in DC, so not too far from the White House). The exhibit space forces visitors to confront the realities of modern-day slavery.
  6. Love. These three cats are on a tile in the bathroom at the Torpedo Factory. They remind me of the three cats who are part of my family. I’d like to think they secretly love each other.
  7. Inspired. Part of the Greensboro Lunch Counter is on display at the National Museum of American History, inspiring museumgoers who are trying to bend that moral arc of the universe toward justice.
  8. Intentional. The “spite room” at the General Federation of Women’s Clubs headquarters. (This room was built when the house was a private residence.)
  9. Radiant. Art from the Wonder exhibit at the Renwick.
  10. Enough. It’s hard to tell in this cropping of the photo, because there wasn’t enough room to fit everything, but this flag in front of Arlington House is at half-staff. The photo was taken just after the mass shooting/attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords. In the foreground is the Eternal Flame that memorializes President Kennedy.
  11. Service. This inscription at the World War II Memorial reads: Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices. Harry S Truman
  12. True. A bust of Charles Darwin at the National Academy of Sciences.
  13. Untethered. While this ship-shaped playground outside the Arlington Arts Center may not be going anywhere, children can play on it with untethered imagination.
  14. Awed. This photo is from Joshua Tree National Park in California.
  15. Optimistic. The Women’s March on Washington made me feel at least somewhat optimistic.
  16. Thankful. At the Children’s Garden at Brookside Gardens, the words on a tree stump remind us to say thank you to pollinators.
  17. Bold. The first Infinity Room that visitors enter at Yayoi Kusama’s Hirshhorn exhibit is small, but it’s filled with mirrors, bright red polka dots, and phallic-shaped objects. This room is called Phalli’s Field.
  18. Kind. At the 2013 National Book Festival, Jane Paley (human) and Hooper (dog) shared with an audience of melting hearts their stories of Hooper being rescued from Hurricane Katrina and then serving as a therapy dog in libraries.
  19. Open. Everything just seems open in this photo – open sky, open water, open porch at Mount Vernon.
  20. One. A labyrinth (like this one at the University of Maryland, College Park) has only one path into the center and back out.
  21. Alive. I photographed this flower, ladybug, and bee on the grounds of Washington National Cathedral.
  22. Breath. Someone’s breath blew these bubbles at the Blossom Kite Festival in 2010.
  23. Content. At Torre Argentina in Rome, cats nap in the sun or hide in the nooks and crannies of ancient ruins while they wait for their forever homes.
  24. Growing. I photographed these flowers growing at the United States Botanic Garden.
  25. Enough. A display of the rapid growth of bacteria at the Koshland Science Museum.
  26. Accepting. One of the many contributions to Takoma’s annual Seats exhibit, this set of six chairs emphasizes the inclusiveness that Takoma residents cherish.
  27. You. I photographed this wishing tree at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival a few years ago. Everyone, including you, could add their wish to the tree.
  28. Soulful. Roger Williams, in statue form at the United States Capitol, believed in soul liberty and was a champion of religious freedom.
  29. Still. A sculpture on the grounds of the Music Center at Strathmore. (I wrote about the visual art at Strathmore while considering the Slow Art movement, the idea of being still and looking at one or just a few pieces of art for a long time.)
  30. Heartful. Notice the heart on this figure at the now-closed Awakening Museum in New Mexico.
  31. Wild. At the National Geographic Museum, I learned about the complicated dance that male birds of paradise do in order to attract mates. It was pretty wild.


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Thematic Artomatic

This year’s Artomatic (running from March 24 to May 6 in Crystal City) features the art of some 600 artists, each adorning their own parcel of wall, floor, and ceiling. As such, there are some 600 individual exhibits, some 600 artistic and curatorial visions.

Yet some themes emerge in the seven floors of art:

Music. In addition to the visual art on display, there are performing artists scheduled at different times on the various stages. Visitors can sit and watch the shows, or wander the floors with the live music in the background. But several pieces of visual art make reference to music as well: photographs of concerts and dancing, sculptures made out of musical instruments. In one room, you can give scratched or unpopular records a final spin before artist Greg Benge applies paint to them.

Art from Artomatic 2017 by Sarah Chittenden, Jules Moore, Seemeen Hashem, Michelle Marin, Pandi Dacu, Michele Colburn, Margaret Jacobson, Christine Cardellino, Jennifer Droblyen, Bardia Saeedi, Tim Brown, Larry Brown, Dave Peterson, and Rosemary Gallick

Art from Artomatic 2017 by Sarah Chittenden, Jules Moore, Seemeen Hashem, Michelle Marin, Pandi Dacu, Michele Colburn, Margaret Jacobson, Christine Cardellino, Jennifer Droblyen, Bardia Saeedi, Tim Brown, Larry Brown, Dave Peterson, and Rosemary Gallick

Politics. Unsurprisingly, this year’s is a very political Artomatic. Caricatures of Donald Trump abound, as do posters and T-shirts from the resistance. Many artists have taken to their media to double down on the values they hold dear: inclusion, kindness, art, science, human rights, the environment – principles that are apolitical in theory but that are clearly being highlighted in the context of the current moment.

Space for visitor responses. What’s at stake for you? What are you doing at 5:01 (p.m. on a weekday)? What do you hope for? Draw a picture. These instructions, along with blank canvases and sticky notes, invite the viewer to add their own words or drawings to the mix.

Lights. This particular Artomatic is in an office building with actual offices (not just open floor plans for a sea of cubicles), which offer artists the opportunity to control the lighting in their spaces, allowing for a handful of installations that flicker or glow in darkened rooms. Appealing to visitors in a similar way as some as Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, the works that play with light were among the favorites of me and some of the people I visited with.

Clothing. I saw glass dresses and a bridal gown symbolizing climate change; a bigot-proof vest and a trumpet spewing socks; a bra tree and pretty scarves and jewelry and fiber art. And along with the depictions of people with no clothes, there are a great many images of people wearing clothes, too.

Dogs and cats. I am not sure if this was a recurring theme or just one that I noticed and photographed ad nauseam. But I think it does make sense that as amateur artists display their best or newest work, there will be plenty of room for the paintings, sketches, photos, and stained glass of the most adorable creatures in their lives.

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The DC Region’s Medical History

DC, Maryland, and Virginia have a number of museums that deal with the history of health, medicine, and drugs. Below are examples from each of the three jurisdictions:

District of Columbia

The building on 7th St. NW in the heart of DC, near the National Archives, was slated for demolition in 1996 when General Services Administration (GSA) employee Richard Lyons made a pretty cool discovery while inspecting the premises. On the third floor, he saw an envelope hanging in the slats of the ceiling, hinting at more objects to encountered in the attic above. As Lyons explored the attic, he found long-abandoned and forgotten artifacts from Clara Barton’s time in the building, living in one small room and using the bulk of the third floor to run her office for locating missing Civil War soldiers.

After Lyons, and others who understood the historical significance of the building, fought to preserve the rowhouse, the space was restored and opened to the public as the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum. Today, visitors can see old medicine bottles and a piece of a rubberized tent that could be put up for shelter, read examples of the letters sent by and to Clara Barton, feel the difference between two walls in her bedroom (one the original wall of the building, and one a makeshift partition that was put up to decrease the size of her room and increase the working space), and learn about Barton’s other roles in life from Angel of the Battlefield to founder of the American Red Cross.

Clara Barton's bedroom in the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum

Clara Barton’s bedroom in the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum


One of my Weekly Museum Visits was a trip to Beall-Dawson House, run by the Montgomery County Historical Society, where I walked across a snowy lawn to see a house all decorated for a Christmas from the days of yore. Although the guided tour of the many rooms of the house was the main component of the experience, I also got to see the tiny one-room Stonestreet Museum of 19th Century Medicine, also located on the premises. (In its heyday, it had been on a different street in the core of Rockville.)

Dr. Edward Elisha Stonestreet practiced medicine for the latter half of the 19th century, commissioned by the Union Army as a surgeon and continuing to treat patients until his death in 1903. The museum’s objects reflect the changes in medical practice, and the world, during the decades of his service, from the once-sworn-by use of bloodletting as medical treatment to the invention of the telephone.

The exterior of the Stonestreet Museum of 19th Century Medicine

The exterior of the Stonestreet Museum of 19th Century Medicine


Like the Stonestreet Museum, Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum was one of my Weekly Museum Visits back in 2010. The historic pharmacy, located in Old Town Alexandria, is now open to the public as a museum, where visitors can see implements used in the manufacturing of 19th century drugs and medicines. Like today’s CVS and Rite Aid, the apothecary sold items like toilet paper and sunglasses in addition to medicine.

As for the substances themselves, some are the kind you might put in tea or cupcakes (vanilla, allspice, cinnamon). Some seem to come straight from Harry Potter’s Potions textbooks (unicorn root, dragon’s blood) and are highlighted in the museum’s Harry Potter-themed events. Others include marijuana and opium.

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

Thank you to those who gave me tours of these three sites!

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Two Visits to MICA

A friend and I visited art exhibits at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) twice in 2016, each time in a different building. On the first occasion, we did not research in advance what exhibits would be on display, beyond checking the location and hours.

Upon walking into the Fox Building to see the MFA in Studio Art Thesis Exhibitions, the first piece of art we saw was a large piece of fabric, embroidered with words in cursive. The imagery was of Strawberry Shortcake and her adorable cartoon cat; the words were nothing I can repeat here.

Fountain outside MICA's Fox Building

Fountain outside MICA’s Fox Building, July 2016

The rest of the exhibit was similar: though the other pieces did not feature Strawberry Shortcake, the art took the form of embroidered fabric. Sewn onto many of the pieces were the responses of women who had filled out a survey for Jacqueline Bishop, artist behind the Female Sexual Desires Project.  Other embroidered works by Bishop provided a sort of abstract visual to go with the words.

We had not known we would be seeing this particular exhibit, with its detailed and intimate language, but luckily, I was visiting with one of the few people with whom I would not find it awkward to visit such an exhibit.

The awkwardness surrounding the subject matter was a common thread in the respondents’ words. As the artist wrote in a Huffington Post article on what she learned from the project, “the third thing I’ve learned about female sexual desires: they remain sublimated under imagery of flowers, for example, and women were often afraid of their desires, and were even afraid to voice their desires because often what women wanted was so raunchy that it ran counter to the ‘good girl’ image that so many of them were raised with.”

Some of the survey responses incorporated into the art were difficult for me to read: on certain pieces, the shade of the fabric used for the embroidery and the shade of the background fabric did not provide enough contrast for my eyes to discern the words easily, or I found the embroidered cursive hard to decipher. Others had a layer of fringe fabric in front of the words, which I was tempted to push aside in order to read (don’t worry, I didn’t touch the art). It made me wonder if the artist herself felt the awkwardness, if she was putting another layer between the risqué words and the curious reader.

In addition to Bishop’s art, we saw works by six other artists in the galleries. The most memorable for me was Lindsey Bailey’s #bangagitatetransitrepeat, an installation full of color and sound and a variety of materials.

Later in the year, the same friend and I visited MICA, this time entering the Fred Lazarus IV Center to see the Baltimore Rising exhibit. The art filling the space reflected various artists’ responses to the protests and unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray after an unbuckled “rough ride” in police custody. Though the pieces were inspired by this recent tragedy in Baltimore, they were imbued with a sense of history, with references to slavery, the Confederacy, redlining, and other historical examples that continue to shape and influence contemporary times.

We saw Baltimore Rising in early November, just days before the 2016 election. I remember the timeframe clearly for a few reasons: my friend’s birthday had just passed, and I had brought a cupcake for her. A SafeTrack surge on the Red Line (shutting down a segment of the local public transportation that would bring me to Union Station, where I then took a commuter train up to Baltimore) replaced trains with shuttle buses. And on the shuttle bus that I rode, a man stood at the front facing all the passengers, blasting our not-yet-awake ears with slogans like “Don’t get stumped! Vote for Trump!” for the entire duration of the bus ride.

Outside MICA's Lazarus Center, November 5, 2016

Outside MICA’s Lazarus Center, November 5, 2016

Like me, Cara Ober (founding editor of BmoreArt) visited the exhibit shortly before the election. Her review of the show incorporates how the context of the election informed her understanding of the exhibit:

When I first visited Baltimore Rising, about a week before the election of Donald Trump, I had more criticisms of this show to offer. There was a sense of self-satisfaction that rubbed me the wrong way in places; there are gaps in curatorial vision where some works feel less relevant to the Baltimore uprising and more related to general issues of race, history, and the justice system.

But today, now that I am living in Donald Trump’s America, I am filled with nothing but gratitude that this show exists….

Personally, I found the historical perspective in the art illuminating, as in the case of Sonya Clark’s Unravelled – three loose balls of thread, red, white, and blue, from a deconstructed Confederate flag. Other works in the exhibit included sculpture, paintings, and photography.

The exhibition of students’ thesis art reflects MICA’s commitment to the “education of professional artists and designers, and to the development of a collegiate environment conducive to the evolution of art and design.”  MICA’s mission statement also references “the vital role of art in society,” and Baltimore Rising demonstrates the vital role of past and current societal events in art.


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