Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Barack and Me

Last night on one of the cable news channels, I heard some commentators discussing whether Barack Obama had plagiarized a speech from Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. The speech was about the importance of words--and I was struck by how similar parts of the speech were to the new tour I've been working on at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo, NY. The site is the house where Roosevelt was sworn in on September 14, 1901, after the assassination of William McKinley. After the somewhat improvised swearing in--and then a brisk walk--Roosevelt returns to a room being used as a temporary office for him and sits down at a desk to write his first message to the nation. On the tour, we bring visitors in, and talk about how we look towards presidents to do many things--to help us understand things, to mourn, to look towards the future--and mention both "four score and seven years ago," and "today is a day that will live in infamy. We ask visitors what Presidential words they remember--in our prototyping, people mentioned JFK's "ask not what you can do for your country," but also "our long national nightmare is over," and Reagan's speech about the Challenger astronauts. So the idea that words matter--particularly to presidents--isn't an idea exclusive to Obama, or Deval Patrick. It just is...words do matter.

What happens next on the tour? Visitors were asked to just jot down some notes about what they would say if they became president. What happened? In each prototype tour, a serious discussion about the fundamental things that we care about as Americans--and that we wish for in the future. We then share a copy of TR's draft of his proclamation--although by the time of its writing, he had published numerous books, he struggled just like the rest of us. The draft is in fits and starts, with cross-outs and start-overs. Words do matter.

And hey, why doesn't anyone accuse him of plagiarizing from me! I wrote this draft tour weeks before the speech.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Personal Meaning Making Take 2

Today's New York Times has a great article on how romantic some couples find museums--particularly on those Friday nights when many NY museums are open late. Evidently the Met is a great first date place, and a colleague of mine visited the Rubin Museum on a Friday night not long ago, and was surprised--and thrilled--to find the lobby full of music and people drinking martinis. In the Times article, one visitor described her museum going experience,"Going to the museum is intimate. It's something you experience alone, but communicate to the other and exchange impressions." Andrea Bayer, a curator, described a visit as "allowing an expansiveness of time." For those of us--mostly all of us, I suspect, museum visits offer an antidote to the rushed, hurriedness of our lives. I find that although I like history museums, I visit them as a busmen's holiday--what do the labels say, how is something mounted, what are the media installations. But I find art museums to allow that expansiveness of time, a place where you really can transport yourself. My husband and I visit museums totally differently--I'm a skimmer and he's a deep looker, but the chance to see visit a museum, then sit and talk about it...that's a wonderful thing.

Above: The Love Letter by Fragonard, at the Metropolitan Museum

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Calling Maxwell Smart

Last month, I visited the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. I'd never been before, and was very pleased to find a fascinating place, filled with great shoes, of course, but also filled, throughout, with creative, inventive exhibition design in both permanent and temporary exhibits. So I thought I'd share some images here. Above, a shoe created by a student as part of a classroom project. All of these student shoes were beautifully displayed in vitrines, making me think that the students were thrilled and perhaps felt a lasting connection to the museum.

Entrance to permanent exhibition

Permanent exhibition: loved the use of color and pattern here and the way that the shoes were mounted low and a playful, curving band of images and patterns encircled them.

Below, images from a temporary exhibit on Roccoco shoes. As you can see, it's a plain black box of a room, transformed by interior walls, rococco style and chandeliers. The attention to detail even extends to the padding that the shoes sit on in the cases and the number"buttons."

Below: An exhibit on First People's (Native American) shoes from across Canada, divided by region. The large backdrops showing details from the footwear are printed in segmented banners. It took me a little bit to discover that the boxes pulled open, but once they did, they did a nice job providing additional information. What I didn't like here? The fairly extensive use of the passive voice in label writing. A stitch isn't laid down, someone does the stitching.

Below: a sort of open storage exhibition, showing off more highlights from their collection. Right outside this room was a large window into a lab where you could see conservators at work. What did I like here? The design was very simple but engaging, and where else could you see Napoleon's socks?

And finally, another student shoe--flip flop gone wild!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Personal Meaning Making

I'm often in meetings talking about that visitors bring their own perspectives to museums, and that we can no longer think of the visitor as an empty vessel, in which to pour all our arcane knowledge. In one such meeting this week, we got in a conversation about historic sites that might move a visitor to tears...after discussing sites such as Stepping Stones, which was the home of Bill and Lois Wilson, founders of AA and Al-Anon, and other powerful sites, one of the meeting participants said, "I cried when I saw Pee Wee Reese's plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame." To her, he was a memorable part of her childhood. So, that's Brooklyn Dodger Reese above, a reminder of how you never know what will reach people.