Monday, June 30, 2008

Mata Hari

During my time in the Netherlands, I had a bit of time to visit other museums. As I found last year, Dutch museums seem to be at a very high standard, in conceptualization, design and ways to engage audiences. I saw an exhibit on Mata Hari at the Fries Museum in Leuuwarden.

Like most people, I knew the name Mata Hari, and not much else about her. She was, however, from Friesland and has a fascinating story: exotic dancer, World War I spy and killed by a firing squad.

But equally fascinating was the exhibition. It was just a single large, square, high-ceiling room. As you look at the walls, you think, "hmmm...wallpaper..." and then you look up close and see that the wallpaper is really floor to ceiling images of the female human form, some with tattoos and some not, overlaid with writing from documents. So in the room itself, you're immediately immersed in the female body.

Large banners with images of her at different points in her life were around the room, and small framed sections held text and small objects. Interestingly, I later saw this same sort of frame in a shop, so it was an off-the-rack solution. For each section of her life, there was also a form with a dress similar to one in the photograph, and in the center of the room (above) was the image of her in her dance costume and the love-seat-like case held one of her original costumes.

The exhibit was created by two artists, Tilly Buij and Gerard Groenewoud, and it makes a strong argument for involving artists in different kinds of museum work. Evidently there are not many Mata Hari objects in existence, so the work of creating an engaging exhibition relied on the talents of the artists in creating a space that was unusual and visually compelling. As a result, the space encouraged exploration by the visitor. In this project the content and the design worked beautifully together. The top image? You didn't see that when you entered the room, you had to walk around to see it, making it a surprise!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Quilten Tentoonstelling

That's quilt exhibition in Dutch. I've just returned from a week in the Netherlands, where I worked on a collaborative exhibition project for Mennonite Central Committee here in the US and the International Menno Simons Center in the Netherlands. The exhibit, Passing on the Comfort, tells the story of An Keuning-Tichelaar. During and after World War II, she and her husband Herman made their home a refuge for many people: Jews, Dutch children sent out from the cities during the Hunger Winter, and, after the war, Mennonite refugees fleeing the Ukraine. The quilts in the exhibit were made by Mennonite women in the US and Canada, and sent to the Netherlands as a part of the Mennonite Central Committee's relief efforts. An saved the quilts for many years until a chance encounter with Lynn Kaplanian Buller, an American living in Amsterdam, encouraged her to tell her story in a book, newly published in Dutch and also available in English.

An's story--and the story of those American and Canadian women who working together, made quilts to make a difference in the lives of people an ocean away- encourages all of us to consider how and why we can chose to make a difference.

The Dutch version of the exhibition opened in the small village of Witmarsum, in Friesland, on a beautiful sunny day. I was privileged to meet An and her family, and to work with a great group of volunteers in installing the exhibit. No surprise, hard-working volunteers are the same everywhere. In particular, Wiske Beuker, Afke Kuypers and Lynn Kaplanian Buller made my stay there easy, thoughtful, and fun!

The American version of Passing on the Comfort will be available for travel this fall from my firm Riverhill, and I'll write more in the next few posts about some of the Dutch museums and historic houses I had a chance to visit.

From top to bottom:

Visitors at the exhibition opening
An Keuning-Tichelaar (left) and Wiske Beuker (right) during the opening ceremony
Volunteers at work
The audience at the opening ceremony in the Oudekerk in Witmarsum

Sunday, June 15, 2008

NOT Boring House Tours

For a new project, I posted a query on several museum list-servs seeking perspectives on historic houses that engage their visitors. I heard from those who noted a site they had visited, and from others who worked at sites that had undertaken new interpretive efforts. I'll continue to write about historic houses, but here's the start of a list of historic houses that museum list-servers recommended:

Rupp House, Gettsburg, PA
Locust Grove, in Louisville, Kentucky
Laura's Plantation
Drayton Hall, SC
Middletown Place, SC
Sotterly, MD
Coffin House, Fountain City, Indiana
Luthili Museum, South Africa
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
Anne Frank Museum
Davenport House Museum, Savannah, Georgia
Chateau de Mores State Historic Site, Medora, ND
Benjamin Franklin House, London

What else should be on the list? Where have you had a memorable, engaging experience?

Above: White pitchers at Chateau de Mores State Historic Site, from levendis' photostream on

Thursday, June 12, 2008

"Visiting a Very Historic House"

Talk about personal meaning-making. I found this image on Flickr. It was posted by Randy Waltrip, and the title is the same as this entry and his caption reads:

One of the things I really wanted to do with Sue and Bob was to drop by the old, three-flat house on Miflin Street where both her family and my mother's family had lived in the 1940's. She was kind enough to agree, and so we drove over to the old neighborhood and began to walk around the "historic house", with Sue sharing memories of her life as a girl there, and how much she had enjoyed having my Mom for a babysitter.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Within Our Own Time

This weekend, I came across a link to a group of photographs by Paul Fusco, taken from Robert F. Kennedy's funeral train and now on exhibit at the Danziger Project gallery in New York City. The images are so sunny and beautiful, yet unbelievably sad and full of pain. As I clicked through them, I wondered about all the people in the photographs--did they remember that day? seeing the train, or just the fact that that their mom made them go out and stand by the tracks on a hot day? did it change anyone's life?

In the last decade, we've seen many museums of many sizes take on projects relating to World War II: exhibits on homefront activities have been many. But I can't think of many projects that have really examined the Sixties, in all its messiness. Two exceptions are What's Going On: Newark and the Legacy of the Sixties at the New Jersey Historical Society and the new museum at the site of the Woodstock Festival.

The American view of World War II is a fairly tidy one, but the Vietnam War and the Sixties is not. How do we, as museums, explore topics for which there isn't a consensus? And as I attempt to do oral histories for projects, I'm reminded that the time to collect personal perspectives and objects from that time period is now, not later.

Above: Photo by Paul Fusco from RFK Funeral Train Rediscovered at the Danziger Project.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Big Ideas, Little Money

"The lack of money is the root of all evil."

Mark Twain

Recently, articles about two well-known historic houses have brought issues of financial management, expansion and audience to the fore. The Mount, Edith Wharton's home in the Berkshires, is facing extreme difficulties and earlier this year, defaulted on a $4.3 million loan from a local bank. Determined efforts may yet rescue the site. From the Mount's blog, the following announcement on May 13:

"The agreement of Berkshire Bank and our other major creditors to grant the six-month extension represents a significant milestone in our determined fight to resolve our problems and establish The Mount on responsible financial footings going forward. This extension allows us to capitalize on the Berkshires' peak tourist months to generate much needed operating revenues while at the same time provided a realistic time frame to achieve our $3 million fundraising goal....We have a considerable way to go and do not underestimate the enormity of the challenge." (Mount Trustee, Gordon Travers).

In today's New York Times, a story details the dire financial straits of Mark Twain's home in Hartford. The staff has been cut to 17 from 49, and despite a bank's forgiving of a loan for new visitor center construction (at a total, unanticipated cost of $19 million), the museum still faces significant shortfalls and possible closure.

What does this all mean? These are great houses, with tremendous stories of their inhabitants, well-documented, in good locations. At both places, professional staff have worked hard to creatively interpret the house and to engage audiences.

So what's the problem? I think, as my mom says, "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach," or in other words, the leadership at these organizations had a vision far beyond their means. $19 million visitor center, $2.5 million to buy Wharton's library back--if your organization has to accomplish this with a loan, somehow assuming that you'll be able to persuade donors to support the fait accompli, it seems pretty clear that it won't happen.

Whenever I read articles like this, I'm always curious about what board members think? Would they take this kind of risk with their own business or home? Are they just not paying attention and assuming someone else is?

In my work I spend alot of time encouraging organizations to think more broadly, to envision a new future for their museum or historic site. However, unless that creative thinking is paired with realistic organizational and financial planning, big ideas appear doomed to failure.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Little House on the Hudson?

More from the teaching history front: in a focus group this week, several teachers said they used Little House on the Prairie as a way of teaching about the history of New York State. It's been a long time since I've read any of the Little House books, and my daughter, now 19, never had any interest in them, but teachers seem to find them meaningful and useful. Interestingly, they use this to teach what they call "colonial" or "Early American" history, despite the fact that the books, written in the 1930s by Laura Ingalls Wilder, depict, through fiction, the Midwest in the late 19th century. I wonder whether the use of these books really reflects the teachers (mostly female) own childhood affection for these books, rather than any sort of real assessment of their usefulness in a classroom setting. I know for me, a small part of my mental images about the Revolutionary War were shaped by reading Johnny Tremaine by Esther Hudson. I had to go back and look up some descriptions of the book to recall the details, but I remember his apprenticeship as a silversmith, the sense of being involved in events larger than one's own life, and a sort of pluckiness and determination. Funny I don't remember Laura from Little House in the same way.

The same group of teachers mentioned that, on the museum visit, they wanted more activities that were appealing to boys in their group. I think of Little House as very much a girl's book--even Farmer Boy, also by Wilder, is more boy-centered, as it's based on Wilder's husband's growing up in New York's North Country.

What does this mean? is it the detail in the books that is appealing? the idea that many of the activities discussed are translatable to classroom activities? should we, as museum people care that teachers use these books to teach history? are there books relating to New York State's history that would make a good read before visiting certain NYS museums? Why cannot we shape real historic sources and narratives into forms that can engage students?