Monday, February 26, 2007

What we think about buildings

Recently, the American Institute of Architects released the results of a poll of America's favorite structures. The Empire State Building comes in at number one, and others in the top twenty include the Golden Gate Bridge, Grand Central Terminal in New York, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. As I read the list, I thought both about my favorite buildings and about a recent concert I attended. The poll evidently was taken by showing images to respondents--but arguably, that's not how most of us experience architecture. Architecture is something that you experience with your entire self--not just your eyes. I became a student at Cornell the fall after the Johnson Museum (designed by IM Pei) opened--and, as a freshman, at first, I hated it. After walking past it, up Libe slope for two semesters, I came to love it. Ithaca has changeable weather, to say the least, and somehow the Johnson changed in every weather. Some days it loomed up out of the fog or snow, other days it was surrounded by fall leaves. The building became a part of me and my life at Cornell.

A few weeks ago I attended a concert at the Walton Theater. Walton's a small town near me, and the building, listed on the National Register, has served as performance space and movie house for generations of Waltonians. Last spring, I toured the building with two of the dedicated volunteers working to restore it--but just a few weeks later, the building, and much of Walton, were devastated by floods.

This concert, by Irish American musician Cathy Ryan, was the first since that flood. Volunteers, many of whom had damage to their own homes or businesses, had pulled together and cleaned out mud, replaced floors and theater seats, and brought the building back. It was a joyful occasion for the community. Cathy Ryan talked about how musicians can feel a sense of previous performers when they walk into a space. I think this sense of lives past--whether it's our own experiences or others--is what makes a favorite building.

Buildings' lives are created by those occupants and others who experience it inside and out. As I thought about the lively feel of this old but now new performance space, I wondered about why it's so hard for so many historic houses to convey this same spirit. Do we not chose to save the right places, just taking the house that someone is willing to give us? Or have somehow do we squeeze that feeling out of it in our eagerness to care for and interpret the place meeting professional standards? The best historic sites, to me, are the ones that somehow recapture that feeling--the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York, or Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin for instance. Now that so many places are the same--will all our communities be saving all those Wal-Marts in future decades?--it's perhaps even more important that we pay attention to that spirit of place in all of our communities.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Is Interpretation Dead?

A colleague--and fellow free-lancer--called yesterday to talk about the word interpretation. It's one of those inside baseball words--words that we use in the profession but we constantly need to explain to others. And when you do interpretation as a consultant, it's often the very first part of your conversation with a client. She'd had several people tell her that in the field, interpretation was dead--it was no longer used in museums. We jointly decided to disagree with that, but then wondered if there were a better word. I often use the metaphor of a bridge (borrowed, I think from Falk and Dierking somewhere) with the visitor on one side and the information about your site or exhibit on the other. If you don't have something to help them across they'll never get it. I have to admit, other than Freeman Tilden, I don't know when the word came into existence and assume it exists because interpretation from one language to another is a living, person to person communication--rather than translation, which implies something on a page. In either case though, I think those images still work. When we think of powerful interpretation, we're not thinking of something that's word for word, or in our cases, fact for fact. If you think that straight-forward approach works, try any of those free translation sites. Word for word doesn't get you to the essential meaning of even simple concepts, muchthe less complicated stories. So what word should we use? I'm still thinking--and very open to suggestions.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Doritos and Museums: A Match?

What do Doritos and museums have in common? Doritos sponsored a contest for Super Bowl commercials--the winner (you can see it here) was created for a total cost of about $12. What does it have to do with museums? It reinforces the theory--first articulated in this succinct way to me by my colleague Anne Ackerson: Ideas don't cost money! Exhibits can be creative, fun, and meaningful without costing a pile of money. I just groan every time I see an exhibit of wedding dresses, or the chronological history of the community, or views of a region, or the same old topic over and over again. I want to see local history exhibits that go beyond that; that really use museum objects and community knowledge to share--not just the big old line-up of that salt cellar collection! This isn't to say that money doesn't help in the exhibition process--it's great to be able to work with scholars, designers, fabricators and evaluators, but if there's not a big idea, it's not going to work as an exhibit.

In reading an interview with Dale Backus, the creator of the commercial (and only 21) several other important ideas emerge: the commercial was the creative work of a group, brainstorming ideas together. The group wasn't afraid to adapt and change their idea once production began--both because better ideas emerged and because some parts of the plan didn't work. And of course, nothing like a deadline to encourage creativity. Their final commercial was completed just before the submission deadline.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Museums of Anything and Everything

In today's NY Times and elsewhere, I read with some fascination, the obituary of Elizabeth Tashjian, the founder of the Nut Museum in Connecticut. Read more about her in this 2005 New Yorker article. Her life's work was a complex combination of artmaking, collecting, and, in places unusual for a museum curator--such as the Johnny Carson show--educating the public about nuts.

Clearly, she had a particular passion, but the pursuit of that passion--founding a museum--she shares with thousands of others. Some people create museums of local history, or collect fine art--but Ms Tashjian belonged to the group of people who develop an all-consuming interest for a particular topic. In upstate New York alone there are museums dedicated to butterfly art, petrified creatures, maple, baseball, bottles, Easter eggs, firefighting, the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, Ithaca Calendar clocks, fiddlers and sailplanes--to name just a few of the state's specialized museums. Some of these make the transition to a more mainstream museum--the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for example. Others, however, remain almost entirely the province of their well-intentioned and enthusiastic founders, never generating the finances and support necessary to sustain an organization.

Thinking of starting a museum? Think about the sustainability of your enterprise. Sure, you care about buttons, or wood planes, or whatever. Will anyone else? How can you translate your passion into a museum that others can care about--in a deeper way than just a curiosity?

There was an answer for the Nut Museum--a professor at Connecticut College saved the collection and in 2004, helped develop an exhibition at the Lyman Allyn Museum in Connecticut. Read a thoughtful Wesleyan student review of that exhibit here.