Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Not Closed, Just Locked: Exhibit Censorship in Kyiv

Anyone in the American museum field is probably familiar with the cases of censorship and attempted censorship that have roiled American museum practice (and in some cases the public) over the last few decades:  Sensation at the Brooklyn Museum, the National Portrait Gallery,  the Enola Gay controversy, and of course, Robert Mapplethorpe.   The resolution of each situation is different,  but in every case,  issues of free speech and the importance of showing sometimes controversial art have been brought into public conversation.

When I was in Ukraine as a Fulbright Scholar in 2009, I taught a course at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA).  One of independent Ukraine's most distinguished universities it was (and is) home to a lively, passionate group of students--I've been lucky enough to stay in touch with many of those who experimented with me in class.

But recently,  the openness, artistic enterprise and academic freedom have come under fire at NaUKMA.  Here's the story,  from Vasyl Cherepanyn, director of the Visual Culture Research Center at the University.
On February 10th, 2012, the President of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy Serhiy Kvit banned the exhibition of the Visual Culture Research Center “Ukrainian Body” that explored the issues of corporality in contemporary Ukrainian society. Serhiy Kvit explained his decision in the following way: “It’s not an exhibition, it’s shit”. After the act of censorship, which drew a wide response in the Ukrainian and foreign media, the President of NaUKMA has initiated a number of bureaucratic restrictions against the Visual Culture Research Center as the organizers of the exhibition. On February 23rd the Academic Council of the university led by Serhiy Kvit passed a resolution to bar the activities of VCRC.

On March 12th, the President of NaUKMA Serhiy Kvit made a resolution on the prohibition of all events and exhibitions in the Old Academic building, where the Visual Culture Research Center has been working since 2008, referring to the building's “condition conducive to accident”. Despite its “accident rate” the galleries of Old Academic building are shortly to be used as the library archives. Hence the President of NaUKMA closed the VCRC's exhibition “Ukrainian Body” at first, then the Center itself, and eventually the premises where the VCRC is conducting events, announcing their “condition conducive to accident”.
Those interested can read more in a recent NY Times article (yes, sorry about the paywall) in which the president describes the space as "not closed, just locked" and watch this video (with English subtitles) that includes interviews with the university president, artists, and project curators.   For many,  the attention brought to contemporary art in Ukraine's capital not been entirely negative.  In the Times article,  Kateryna Botanova, the director of the Foundation Center for Contemporary Art , comments,  “I absolutely believe that the closing of this exhibition is the most important thing that has happened in Ukrainian contemporary art in quite some years...It shows that contemporary art is not always beautiful and glamorous. Art can be subversive and a place for discussion.”

I think of Ukraine as a place where lively conversation--the subversive discussions that Kateryna mentions--is still emerging as an accepted part of civic life. As museum colleagues around the world, I hope that we can all encourage that conversation--in Ukraine--and in our own communities.  If you want to support the re-opening of the center,  you can do so by joining me--and many others (including historians Timothy Snyder of Yale and David Walkowitz of NYU, David Elliott, curator of the first Kyiv International Biennale,  and other artists, scholars and curators from around the world) in signing this online petition.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Bite-Size or Banquet? How Do You Like Your History?

Several weeks ago I was in Indianapolis and had a chance to visit both the Indiana Historical Society and the Indiana State Museum and was struck by the differences in the way they presented history, differences that reflect both the DNA of the organizations (one primarily an archives and one an encyclopedic collection)  and a distinct approach to involving visitors.
The Indiana Historical Society is, unlike many historical societies, solely an archives, a repository of millions of photographs and archival materials.  But it's housed in a big, grand space that has now become a place to experience,  on a changing basis,  bite-size bits of Indiana's past.  The You Are There project takes a historic photograph, re-creates the particular space, and peoples the space with live, first-person interpreters to, in any way you wish,  connect with the visitor.  While there,  I heard a bit of Cole Porter sung, met a sponsor of a Holocaust refugee resettled to Indianapolis as she described their arrival, and a listened to a true-believing (and a little cranky) WCTU activist at the site of an illegal still.   I stood in the dark as Robert F. Kennedy announced the death of Martin Luther King to a shocked audience.   Each experience surprised me and led to interesting conversations with my fellow visitors (museum professionals all on that morning). 
The project is an ongoing experiment as the historical society staff listen to visitors, work hard to pick engaging photos from their enormous collection,  and figure out what works and what doesn't.  Several elements take the experience further:  there's a staff member, sort of an introducer, outside each experience.  S/he sets the scene, and even said, in one case, "I like to ask her about..."  to give shy visitors a starting point.  Wall exhibits outside each experience allow interested visitors a place for deeper exploration. 
After RFK's speech,  a staff member engaged us in conversations about the speech, about the members of the audience that night (we were all given a simple description of one and got the chance to learn the rest of their story);  and encouraged us to use a talk-back board sharing what gives us hope.    I'm a sampler,  I like to dip in and out of things,  and this approach really gave me a chance--not to learn a full overview of Indiana history--but to connect with the stories of the state. 
The Indiana State Museum takes a familiar, now seeming a bit old-fashioned, approach. After the You are There experience, I struggled to find the same kind of meaning.  The State Museum takes the long view, starting with the geographic formation of the state.   I've been in meetings where we try and figure out the appropriate sized time period to include in an exhibit.  Here it was the birth of the earth to now--the really long view.
Artifacts and text were layered and layered and layered, to the point that it was tough to make sense of any of it.  I appreciated the care that clearly had gone into developing the exhibits (like the embedded roads, below) but I couldn't find myself caring about much of it.  And I couldn't find that I would find much reason to return to the museum.   But in the case of the historical society,  I'll be fascinated to see the next photo chosen and the next stories shared.
And, by the way,  in this contentious election year, it was meaningful and important to hear Kennedy's words that sad night spoken aloud, "What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."
Bite-size or banquet?  I vote bite-size.  I think that the historical society's approach could serve as a model for so many other historical societies, large or small.  If the model of the billion years ago to now exhibit is the encyclopedia,  perhaps as museum workers, we should be considering if we're headed the way of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  But the historical society's bites of history perhaps better suit contemporary life.  No high-tech media,  just solid research,  a commitment to training great staff, engaged presenters,  and a passionate desire to share meangingful stories.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Coffee to Coffee: Expanding My View

In an earlier post,  I posted my schedule and invited readers to contact me if they had an idea, wanted to share perspectives, or just wanted to meet me.  To my delight, over the last two weeks I've had coffee with a Wikipedian-in-residence, an archivist contemplating a new project, and a Pickle Project supporter.  I've also had lively supper and conversation in tiny Herbert, Saskatchewan; chicken and waffles and talk in Indianapolis;  and morning conversations about exhibits and meaning on Long Island.  The last two travel weeks have been a great reinforcing lesson for me (other reinforcing lesson:  eat local when you can) about the importance of opening up and hearing new voices in all of our practice.  

One of the great gifts of my time as a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine was the sense that I could pursue and engage with anyone and anything I was interested in.  For me, the Fulbright was a chance to be curious on so many levels.  At this point in my career, that knowledge gained in Ukraine, combined with what I suppose is my natural interest in connecting,  makes me ever more willing to meet new people and talk about new things.   It seems all too easy for museums to get in a rut--to not get out and talk to new people.  You're busy, you have to do this or that, where would you go, etc, etc.  What would be the result if you went to somewhere new in your community, offered to buy someone a cup of coffee, and talk (that means listen too)  about your museum--and your community.  Where would that take you?

And a reminder--I'm still around for coffee.  Here's where you can find me over the next few weeks.  Be in touch!

March 16-20,  Washington, DC, for a meeting at AAM and lots of museum-going. 

April 22-24,  at the Museums in Conversation conference, Albany, NY doing a session on career planning with colleagues Anne Ackerson, Marianne Bez, Gwen Spicer, and Christopher Clarke

April 25-26,  Burlington, VT, for a talk with Sarah Crow about the Pickle Project at Shelburne Farms

April 28-May 2 at the AAM meeting in Minneapolis participating in a session on memorials and memorial museums and one on career planning.

May 21-22,  Middletown,  CT,  facilitating a workshop for the CT StEPs program of the Connecticut Humanities Council and the Connecticut League of Historical Organizations

Friday, March 2, 2012

Crowdsourcing Grandmas?

Last week I sat down with my own mother and looked at photos of her mother (above) when she was young.  I emailed my aunt looking for photos of my other grandmother and sorted through old photos at my house.  I dug out my Grandmother Baird's written memories of her childhood summers on Basket Island in Maine, and remembered my Dad's stories about a few childhood years spent in Ocean City, MD.  I emailed the photos to my daughter and shared them with my husband.  What made me take the time to do all that?  A great new exhibit project by the Bleschunova Museum of Personal Collections in Odessa, Ukraine called My Young Grandmother.   The museum is, as its name says, an eclectic individual collection but an enthusiastic staff has taken on a number of innovative projects that extend the museum far out from just a place to see odd things. 
On Facebook and on the web,  the museum invited everyone to imagine and remember that their grandmothers were young once,  that they "ran to the dance, received flowers, and posed in front of the camera in their beautiful dresses."  And not just to remember, but to send those memories and photos for the museum to share with others--a crowdsourced exhibit of grandmothers opening soon.
I've noticed that many history museums in the U.S. have a Grandmother's Attic, some sort of play activity space where you can dress up,  play games, and the like.   I'm all for interactives,  but I'm often concerned that this kind of presentation is too generic--it's both everyone's and no one's grandmother.  And of course, those places often represent the grandmothers of the museum staff, not necessarily the grandmothers of our visitors.  The Bleschunova Museum has made it personal--it's your grandmother.  My Scots/Irish/English grandmothers, both born in 1900,  would be astonished to find themselves on display at a Ukrainian museum.  But across the years, and across the seas,  this museum's creative exhibit idea made a personal connection to me--and isn't that what we wish to do with all our visitors, virtual and real?  I can't wait to hear other grandmother stories from Odessa--and wish other local history museums would come up with such a project.
Photos from top:  Blanche Hallett Baird,  Marian Aller Norris (left) and family,  Blanche (far right) and her family in Maine, Marian (top) with her brother Robert.