Like most bloggers, I spent the last few weeks contemplating my year-end post. So much time, in fact, that the year ended! I was lucky enough to ring in the new with Drew, Anna and thousands of Romans and visitors to Rome overlooking the Coliseum. But now, time for some reflection. I visit lots of museums, so many in fact that I keep track on a google map (2014 and 2015 combined). I realized that the one thing I wanted most in a museum or historic site visit was to be surprised. So here, in roughly chronological order, are the museums, exhibits and historic places that surprised me or made me feel a sense of joy and importance in our work. I've written about some of these, but others are thought of and shared often in person but I just didn't find the time to write about.
One of the smartest, most clever exhibits I'd seen in a long time, as befits the master detective. I loved the way historic objects and images were used to tell the story of Holmes in London. The place became real, but so did those 19th shoes used to explain Holmes' observation skills, and of course, that blue coat worn by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Dennis Severs House, London
Like magic. Entering at night, by candlelight, visiting in silence, voices rustle away as you enter a room. What is going on in this 18th century house? It was thrilling to see a historic house as an artistic creation by a single individual, with the ability to transport us to a different time with no more bells and whistles than candlelight, a room in disarray and a subtle sound track.
The Battlefields of the First World War, France
I would not have believed you if you told me one of my memorable historic site visits this year would be a visit to battlefields, on a chartered bus guided tour with college students, but it was. Why? First, a good, lively guide, with good knowledge and ability to judge his audience. Second, the people I was with. Watching students take in the enormity and waste of war in direct ways. Third, the physical places themselves. To walk in a trench now softened and green, to see a bomb crater, to read the names and names and names at a memorial. And lastly, to have a bit of meaning-making come full circle. We stopped at the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial, commemorating the first day of the Battle of the Somme when an entire Newfoundland regiment was virtually wiped out. The centennial is approaching and there are many commemorative efforts underway in Newfoundland. This summer, at a small outport town. I happened to have a conversation about visiting there. "You did?" said an older man, "my father lost an arm there." All of a sudden that battle was even more real, echoing down the years.
Museum Karel Zeman Prague
"Why do I make movies? I'm looking for terra incognita, a land on which no filmmaker has yet set foot, a planet where no director has planted his flag of conquest, a world that exists only in fairy tales." Karel Zeman
Pure joy. Just steps away from the Charles Bridge, the museum focuses on the work of pioneering Czech animator Karel Zeman. Using the hand-drawn early 20th century animations as a design starting point, combined with hands-on activities that explain the special effects, this museum turned our group of serious adults into a group deep into serious play. A perfect match of creative content, design and interpretation.
Context Travel Walks in Berlin, Prague and Budapest
Context Travel has been a great client for three years now and as result I've been on a number of their scholar-led small group deep dives into art and history. With them I've learned about art in the Vatican, Revolutionary Paris, the Golden Age of Amsterdam and even the food of Istanbul. But this year, four walks in these three Central European cities really stood out for me. The walks were on Jewish history and the Berlin Wall in Berlin, and the Communist era in both Budapest and Prague for three main reasons: a strong sense of place, even when some of the elements of a particular place had vanished. As I stood at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, a great docent helped us understand that the site had once been surrounded by the buildings in which the bureaucratic apparatus of Fascism functioned as a killing machine. Two, a sense of real people's history.
It was on the same walk that I first encountered artist Gunter Demnig's Stolpersteins, or stumbling blocks. The size of a cobblestone, these brass plaques are installed in front of the former homes of Nazi victims with just a simple name and date. You can now find them in many European cities-I saw them most recently in Rome last week.
But the most important factor in making these walks memorable were the docents' own stories. It always a fine line to work between over sharing and just right, but I'll long remember the story of one docent's brother participating in the 1968 protests, another sharing his story of being brought up in West Berlin when it seemed the height of teenage rebellion to go piss on the wall after a night of drinking. In Budapest, our docent, raised in Romania, helped us compare personal lives under regimes.
National Art Museum, Kyiv, Ukraine
Two exceptionally smart exhibits here last spring demonstrated the value of deep thinking about museum collections and the history of how museums have thought about the objects they hold. Heroes looked at art in the museum collection categorized as "hero" from Lenin to poets to heroic workers while another exhibit examined those works that had been blacklisted by various regimes and the roles (sometimes heroic and sometimes not) that museum staff played in categorizing and sometimes safeguarding such works. We have much to learn from examining our own histories. The museum's innovative director, Maria Zhadorzha, departed at the end of 2015; I only hope the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture has the initiative to name an equally talented director to lead the museum's exceptional team.
Paired together for two reasons: one, the same trip west, but two, places whose reputation precedes them. It's great to see that places you read about live up to their reputations. Great experiences both places but at the Exploratorium the surprises were how welcoming the exhibits were to adult experimentation and play and how they're expanding beyond the physical sciences to take on more complicated topics. In Oakland, the talk-back labels were genius, and visiting on a Friday community night showed that museums can attract broad segments of visitors, if they really make an effort.
The New Founde Land pageant, Trinity, Newfoundland
This seemed possibly hokey to me, and parts of it were. But the other hand, a musical theater production that moves the audience from place to place within a historic village while providing us all with a bit of Newfoundland's complicated history, proved unexpectedly moving.
Scandale: Vice, Crime and Morality, 1940-1960, at the Montreal History Center
This shouldn't have been a surprise to me because the exhibit Scandale was curated by one of my 2014 mentees, Catherine Charlebois, and our conversations that year often ranged widely over the issues of developing creative exhibitions. The exhibit uses oral histories as a framework, installed in all sorts of ways: a nightclub tables, in mug shots, at a card game. There were not many objects in the exhibit so, purposefully so, the oral histories and photographs do the storytelling work. Most surprising: walking in a recreation of a prostitute's room and seeing a downward video projection of a couple on the bed!
The lessons for me in all these surprises? Experimentation, a sense of humor, a deep commitment to place, and most of all, the sense in exhibit and historic site interpretation that our complicated human natures can make almost every story compelling and moving. I'm grateful to my clients, old and new, who embrace our creative process together.
What will surprise me in 2016? I've already got a few museum visits already completed this year and it's only the first week of January, so I know there will be surprises coming. In your work, consider making a resolution that surprise and joy are a part of your next project. Surprise me! What could you do differently?