Exhibits are central to museum practice and the museum experience, but the people and processes underlying the creation of exhibits – from initial concept to fabrication and installation – aren’t always clear to an observer. Who participates in these processes, and what factors and considerations drive successful exhibit design? Particularly when museums work with outside groups to develop exhibits, how do goals like honoring institutional identity or crafting innovative, effective learning experiences play out? To explore these questions, I visited the Weldon Exhibits facilities, where Weldon team member Loura Brooks kindly gave me the grand tour.
If I had to be honest, it all started a few years ago, maybe 2012 or 2013. I was a few steps out of the Wellesley subway station in Toronto when I noticed someone’s tattoo peeking out from under the frayed hem of their shorts. In big, bold, all-caps letters, it read “BUTCH,” but in my quick glance at the owner, I couldn’t figure out what gender they were (not that I needed to). The irony of that moment stuck in my head.
Fast forward to spring 2014 and I’m tasked with writing this article for Plinth on the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives’ Pride Month exhibitions. In the course of my research, I find out that the CLGA accepts exhibition proposals from people outside the institution. As someone who loves museums, I couldn’t help but think about what exhibitions I would like to see. Not that I would ever propose one myself; I am not a curator, after all.
Welcome to the second posting of the Plinth Forum. The forum is a site of discourse on issues involving museum practice and museum professionals. Our goal is to survey a wide range of opinions from people working in a variety of museum occupations. Initially we see this work as written essays (with links to relevant materials). Over time, however, we hope to expand our range of discursive practices, to take advantage of our digital platform and to make use of tools like YouTube, Pinterest, and other forms of web-based social media. For now, please enjoy the essays below.
Erik Greenberg, Ph.D., Forum Manager
Article by: Elizabeth Russell
Recently, urban planners have asked the question, “How do we preserve memories of a city after buildings or a neighborhood have been renovated or redeveloped?” In considering how we can keep ties to the past, partnerships between urban planners, or community design collaboratives, and historical societies and cultural organizations are crucial for the development of methods for preserving and interpreting memories. However, in many cases, urban planners, designers and even granting organizations may need to convince historical organizations—especially smaller historic house museums—to sign on to these partnerships.
Installation from the CUDC’s 2009 Bridge Project, a pop-up weekend-long event where the lower level of the Detroit-Superior bridge was opened up and artists were invited to create installations and perform. Photo by Elizabeth Russell.
The Exploratorium, a beloved science and art museum in San Francisco, was the brainchild of a physicist named Frank Oppenheimer (you may have heard of his brother Robert, best known as the father of the atomic bomb). In 1949, near the peak of McCarthy-era paranoia, the House Un-American Activities Committee blackballed Oppenheimer from scientific research. After a dejected stint as a cattle rancher, he became a high school science teacher, often ditching the textbook and letting students get their hands dirty. The municipal dump, for example, was a favorite field trip destination for Oppenheimer: he saw not a heap of garbage, but a wonderland of mechanical, electrical, and thermodynamic possibility. As the political climate cooled, Oppenheimer found more opportunities to formalize and catalogue his library of experiments, amassing more than a museum’s worth. When he opened the Exploratorium in 1969, Oppenheimer finally unleashed his hands-on approach to learning upon a city whose citizens’ wide-open minds were ripe for experimentation.
A visitor navigates the brain’s maze of blood vessels using an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Photo courtesy of Anja Ulfeldt.
Article by: Miesha Shih
For the past 45 years, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago has celebrated the contributions of African Americans to the fields of science, engineering, technology, medicine and the arts through its Black Creativity program.
What began in 1970 as a new home for a popular exhibition of African American art -- rooted in the museum’s Hyde Park neighborhood and organized by community leaders -- has grown into an annual tradition at the Museum of Science and Industry, introducing more African Americans to the diverse resources of the museum and the wonders of science. At its heart, the mission of Black Creativity is to inspire African American youth to explore educational and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and medicine through programming that encourages children and their families to utilize the museum as a means for exploring and discovering their inventive and creative genius. The juried art exhibition, which displays the works of professional and amateur artists from around the country, is Black Creativity’s signature event and remains the longest running exhibition of African American art in the nation.
The Black Creativity Juried Art Exhibition features 104 works from African American artists from all over the country, including a dozen artists between the ages of 14 to 17. [J.B. Spector, Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago]
Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series, a group of 60 panels that together tell a complete visual story, was first exhibited in 1941 at a New York gallery. The tempera paintings recount the northward migration of African Americans as they abandoned the rural south after World War I for cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago. Lawrence’s angular, starkly colorful scenes detail the difficult but momentarily hopeful quest for better opportunities and lives. Despite its inherently narrative nature, the series has led a segmented life for most of its existence, with the odd-numbered paintings residing in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the evens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The two sets have been reunited a few times, including during a Lawrence retrospective in 2001, but are separated more often than not. This spring, all 60 paintings will be on display together again, in an exhibition that will begin at MoMA and make its way to the Phillips in 2016.
Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series Panel no. 1 “During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans,” 1940-41. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. Acquired 1942. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
Credit: Adler Planetarium Photos.
Luckily, earthbound wonderers can search for answers at places like Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, which has a mission “to inspire exploration and understanding of our Universe.” The Adler Planetarium claims the distinction of being the first modern planetarium in the western hemisphere, having opened on May 12th, 1930. It’s also one of the oldest planetariums – period – and has "one of the largest and most significant collections of historic scientific instruments in the world."
Article by: Wil MacLaughlin
Editor’s note: For our “collections” issue, we wanted to include a range of perspectives on engaging with and thinking about museum collections. This piece, a creative take on a museum collection written from the vantage point of a visitor, rather than a museum professional, provides just one window into the vast array of interpretive processes – often personal, creative, and exploratory – a collection can open.
Orpiment is a rock. The little specimen of it that I saw at the Harvard Museum of Natural History looks like a chunk of potato smeared with mustard and left to dry for several trillion years. Wulfenite looks like a wizard cast a spell on moss and made it stagnant and sharp and eternal. And quartz, of course, looks like what you’d expect to find at the top of the staff of a wizard who, for whatever reason, is casting a paralyzing spell on some moss.
The Jenks Society for Lost Museums, of Providence, Rhode Island, is comprised of students from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, their faculty advisors, and artist Mark Dion. In 2014, the group mounted The Jenks Society Presents: The Lost Museum, an installation at Brown that gave the university’s discarded museum a second life (and attracted the attention of publications like The New York Times in the process). Here, Jenks Society member Jessica Palinski provides a closer look at the group’s ongoing efforts and experiences.
Members of the Jenks Society for Lost Museums (photo courtesy of Jodie Goodnough).