Sunday, January 27, 2008

Personal Commemorations

I've been thinking lately about the ways in which we choose to commemorate individuals--not necessarily famous ones, but just those who connect with others, but may not be famous or well-known. In the last few weeks, my own small community has seen the accidental--and unconnected deaths of three young people. Intriguingly, the way that high school and college students choose to commemorate those lives is a facebook site dedicated to the person. People "friend" the site, post pictures and videos, and write messages directly to the deceased. In a way, it's a collective "curation" of a life by friends. It made me wonder about what happens to those sites over time? Do they continue to exist in cyberspace?

In Toronto, I saw two other commemorations--both very different. At the entrance to the Bay, Toronto's big department store, is this window.

Long ago, this particular store must have been Simpson's, rather than the Hudson Bay Company--my somewhat fuzzy picture doesn't quite show it, but it's commemorating Simpson's employees killed during World War II. But I wondered about this it always up? does anyone ever look at it? and who were all these people? what were their lives like before the war? what happened to them? How do their families remember them--and do they even know this was there? I was touched by whatever corporate entity still maintained this display.

We also visited Gallery 44, which had an installation by Ivan Jurakic. My photos don't quite express it, but he created, in an outline of electric bulbs, an outline of a Nazi plane shot down by Resistance fighters--including his father--during World War II. It's not about the plane, really, but seemed to me to be about commemorating that part of his father's life.

All of these made me think about how museums commemorate people. Well, we're happy to do plaques for people who give us money (or in the case, below, have big pictures of donors in your museum) but perhaps we could spend more time finding those individual stories, and telling them in compelling ways to connect them with larger themes and meanings. And, don't take those objects without compelling stories attached just because you don't know how to say no.

From top to bottom:
Installation by Ivan Jurkavic at Gallery 44, Toronto
Entry window, The Bay, Toronto
Photo in installation by Ivan Jurkavic
A bored museum visitor ignores images of donors at the Royal Ontario Museum's new wing

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Look at Me, Me, Me!

Just back from a trip to Toronto, that included a visit to the Royal Ontario Museum, with the new Michael Lee-Chin crystal, designed by Daniel Libeskind. It's been a very long time since I've been so disappointed in a museum. I've always loved visiting the ROM and felt that they had all sorts of interesting ways to connect with visitors. But now, they seem to have lost that connection in their new addition. What do I mean? To start with, although the crystal is certainly eye-catching, as you approach it, it seems unfriendly and sort of threatening, as it hangs over you.

You then come into a sterile long white hallway, already looking sort of dingy. I noticed visitors looking lost and confused. Upstairs, the crystal shape produces very odd galleries, and I have to imagine that curators and designers will soon grow tired of how the space is restricted by the angles and the highly slanted walls, moving everything to the center, and providing much less floor space than one thinks. I was a bit unmoved by the "Spirit House" at the center of the crystal, which, the ROM's website says, "creates a personal Museum experience for each visitor."

But then, strangely, all the imagination disappears. A brand new exhibit on dinosaurs was crowded with visitors, but I found it hard to follow, and not exceptional in design. An exhibit whose name I can't remember (nor can I find on the website) about Canadian decorative arts could have been installed anytime in the last seventy-five years. Big line-ups of furniture and silver just aren't for me.

Okay, did I like anything? The stairway of wonder, although I suspect rarely used by visitors, highlighted collections items in beautiful ways. A nice, not fabulous hands-on exhibit area was being enthusiastically used by families. And finally, as it started to get dark outside, it was great to walk by and see those big dinosaurs through the windows of the crystal.

Who's the me, me, me in the title to this post? Seems like it might be the architect, and not the museum.