culture, considered

1) We so often think of the museum as some kind of sanctuary for culture–as a storeroom for cultural objects; the museum preserves, conserves, historicizes and displays. In turn, we forget that the museum is also a place where culture is generated.

Tom Burtonwood, a professor from the School of the Art Institute reminded me of this the other day when he was showing us his 3-D scanner/printer, which he had set up in the Ryan Education Center:

3-D printer; I’m sure that Emily will tell you all about it…

I was so struck by this idea: the museum as cultural generator. But it makes so much sense: when studying or talking about an artist, we habitually talk about the stylistic influence of other artists; when bringing a student group into the museum, we invite them to bring paper and pencil (no pen!) to sketch the works that they see; when walking around Chicago, we (the aesthetically inclined art nerds that we are) recognize connections between the visual culture of the world around us and the works we know in the museum that served as sources.

2) Last week we read and discussed three short articles that not only relate back to the idea of accessibility I wrote about in an earlier post, but also connect to the idea of culture:

“The Met’s Plans for Virtual Expansion” (Randy Kennedy)

“Campbell Meets Warhol: Does the Met’s director think the public is stupid?” (Jed Perl)

“Museums Should Not Fear the Art Snobs: By assuming that the entire public is good enough to be in the museum, the Met could become a centre of human wisdom for everyone” (Mark O’Neill)

Collectively, these articles called into question the “appropriate” culture for the museum. Most of us took issue with Perl’s criticisms of the Met’s director, who is working to make the Met more accessible through technology, including hand-held devices intended for use in the galleries, but also through such initiatives as numbering the museum’s galleries for the first time. (Kennedy summarizes the changes at the Met as moving away from a long-held “mantra”: “We are the Met, so they will come (and they will be awed).” Perl complains that by “dumbing down” the museum experience, the Met director, Thomas Campbell, is practicing an elitism that assumes that the public is stupid: “Why is he posing with Warhol, when the essential wonders of the Metropolitan include paintings by Rembrandt, Bruegel, and Duccio, spectacular medieval ivories, and eighteenth-century period rooms?” However, what Perl sees as “condescension”, we argued (agreeing with Mark O’Neill) is the Met’s way of “renew[ing] their relationship with society.” As we have learned as museum educators, a lack of knowledge about art does not equal stupidity. As a culture, we have often let art education take a back seat; even those who are knowledgable about art history may not know how to look at artworks or visual cultural objects. Finally, I really liked Mark O’Neill’s closing point: “Far more intellectually demanding–and interesting–would be if the Met set itself the task of reinventing the museum for the 21st century. After 9/11 many directors said that art museums could support intercultural understanding….they would focus more on local people than tourists, building deeper relationships with more diverse audiences.”

These articles also made me recall some of the questions that have arisen on a couple of the intern-led adult tours that I have shadowed: “Was the artist drunk when he painted these forms? We don’t see these objects in real life” and “I think this type of art is obsolete…it’s time has already passed” (in response to Fernand Leger and Agnes Martin, respectively.)

Fernand Leger, Still Life, 1928

Agnes Martin, Untitled #12, 1977

Annie so aptly modeled in these moments that while the ‘museum’ may have already–subjectively, perhaps–endorsed these objects as valuable by allotting them gallery ‘real estate’, as educators we have a responsibility to respond sympathetically to our visitors and expect and even solicit their criticisms.

3) Last week we interns went out on the town for our own, very exciting taste of Chicago culture. Indeed, Wednesday was our much-anticipated trip to Wrigley Field! I’ll admit, with one or two exceptions, the majority of us were equally–okay, maybe more–interested in donning Cubs gear (see Moses’s hat) than in actually watching the game. Nevertheless, we all really loved the spectacle of it all. Wrigley Field and its fans certainly did not lack for spirit. My highlight: singing (shouting) “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the 7th inning stretch.

Matt, Moses, Me, Tiff, and Drew rooting for the Cubs from the nosebleeds!

4) One of the things that makes the Art Institute so wonderful is also what can make crafting tours so overwhelming. The fact that so many cultures are represented also means we have to choose between them. The interns and I consistently find ourselves running up against the same problem: which cultures get included? What amount of responsibility should we take on to include a diverse group of objects? Do we always include western works? Do we always include something from the beloved impressionist collection?

Of course, crafting tours around themes helps. Last week I designed a new quest tour but brought back the oh-so-successful world map (this time with fewer burn holes) so that I could “travel” with my group through the museum. We used Lichtenstein’s Three Landscapes to take a boat to southern India where we met Shiva as Lord of Dance (Nataraja), before tripping across land and sea to Japan (Tadao Ando’s Japanese art gallery). We then made our way to mythical Greece to help Hercules fight the Hydra, and finally took one of the trains from Monet’s Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare St. Lazare in order to return the Ryan Education Center in the museum’s Modern Wing.

Shiva as Lord of Dance (Nataraja): one of my favorite objects to include in tours

Sometimes we have to consider the culture of our visitors when designing our tours. On mine, Drew’s and Emily’s last tour together, we hosted a group of students from France, studying in the U.S. for the summer. For this tour, we added a couple extra American works to our quest tour: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Cross, New Mexico (now one of my favorite paintings) and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

Discussing “hubris” with French high school students; Presenting on one of my collection favorites, the Augsburg Cabinet (1630)

Finally, yesterday I toured with an all-girls group of refugees. My tour plan? Girl power! Or, a tour of traditional and non-traditional portraits/images of women and discussing how images can convey a sense of power/importance: John Singleton Copley’s Portrait of Mrs. Daniel Hubbard (Mary Greene) (1764), this 8th century Indian Celestial Beauty (Apsara), a print potrait of Queen Victoria by George Baxter, Women Descending the Staircase (1965) by Gerhard Richter, and, my favorite, this wood Yoruba sculpture from the African galleries, which shows a wife’s importance over her husband, the king:

Olowe of Ise, Veranda Post of Enthroned King and Senior Wife (Opo Ogoga), 1910/14

Until next time.

Yup, this is where I get to work 🙂 ; my daily view from the Brown Line L

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One thought on “culture, considered

  1. Pingback: Science As Art (An Ode to Astrolabes and Wanders) | Intern Insight 2012

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