Exhibit Review: E. Martin Wunsch and the Decorative Arts at the New York State Museum, Albany, NY

On a recent vacation to my old home of Upstate New York, I was delighted to stumble upon a small exhibit that felt so relevant to the work of museums.  “Building a Collection: E. Martin Wunsch and His Passion for Collecting New York State Decorative Arts” is an exhibit briefly covering the work of one man, while reviewing the importance of the decorative arts, and the techniques used to study them.  The combination of collections history, decorative arts display, and research techniques creates an exhibit that has a greater impact that its size suggests.

I’ve been to the New York State Museum many, many times.  I know the exhibits well enough to catch the new display when it appears.  The exhibit  is nestled along the west corridor of the Museum, hugging the wall with white platforms and multi-colored signs.  It appears to be about 50 feet from start to finish in length.  Furniture rests on the platforms, paintings hang on the wall, and silver resides in plexiglass cases.  My first thought was my mind catching something new to see in a very familiar space.  My next was delight, for I’ve had an interest in the decorative arts for several years now.  My next thought was on the connection between honoring a benefactor, and educating the public on the worth of decorative arts (plus the benefactor’s work) and the knowledge that streams from it.

E. Martin Wunsch was an avid collector of the decorative arts, especially New York related pieces.  He originally collected art for his family business, as part of a corporate collection.  He went on to found the Wunsch Americana Foundation, and started a productive relationship with the NYS Museum in 1969.  The exhibit is made up of the most recent donations from his collection.  Mr. Wunsch passed away in March 2013, his son Peter donated the last pieces from his father’s collection (which were on long-term loan) to the Museum.

The exhibit features two panels explaining Mr. Wunsch’s work and impact.  The panels then shift to the meaning, and importance of that work.  A panel entitled “Representative” illustrates how the collection covers both formal and country styles, and presents unique New York art features.  Individual labels built into the overall panel explain specific details for the objects on display.  Another panel labeled “Provenance” explains the value of knowing where an object came from, who owned it, and how it was passed down.  Through clear, readable text, the core concepts of tracing family history through property wills and tracing the spread of art styles can be extrapolated.  The exhibit seeks to honor Wunsch’s memory by articulating why the public should find worth with what is on display.  Hopefully it will lay the groundwork for future interest and thought.

The exhibit is noteworthy to me as it simultaneously presents the art, discusses its collector, then attempts to give meaning to the work done as the objects were collected and interpreted.  A concern of mine has been public perception of decorative arts collections.  Outside those with a direct interest in the subject (art historians, curators, conservators, researchers, hobbyists), most folks never seem to linger long on furniture/silver/ceramics displays.  Famous paintings, or at least ones easy on the eye, seem to do much better, but can still languish as visitors stroll past rows of portraits.

This is in no way a scientific study, simply a gut feeling from wandering around many a museum.  Large cases filled with silver cream pitchers and plates catch the eye.  Displays of folk stoneware can draw in those interested with the many designs painted on the containers.  Various furniture styles being compared can draw in the style focused crowd.  I can’t help but wonder, though, if most visitors are overwhelmed by the displays, or underwhelmed by the lack of connection to broader topics.  Simple, straightforward exhibits like this one honoring E. Martin Wunsch have the potential to pull back the curtain on historic objects collection, giving purpose and meaning to collecting the art that helps define our world.

 

 

My takeaway from this exhibit is the importance and worth of explaining to the public what the objects mean to us, rather than just what they are.

 

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Smithsonian Digital Transcription: Crowdsourcing while Relaxing

The Internet can be a wonderful place.  Knowledge, thoughts, and concepts are traded daily over the breadth of the world at speeds unheard of even 30 years ago.  The free exchange of information is one of the greatest gifts of the modern age.  Being free of the slow work of the scribe, or the drying ink of a printing press to convey data opens up projects, avenues, and goals.  Crowdsourcing is one such avenue.  Crowdsourcing, at its core, is obtaining services, ideas, and products by dispersing work amongst a large group of people.  One project using this openness and connectivity digitally is the Smithsonian Digital Volunteer Transcription Center.

Work during spare time interests me greatly.  Today, the time commitments of professional work, life, and errands seem to shred the possibility of research and historical work to atoms.  My job is not related to the history field, so any chance I get to help make history available to the public is a gift.  I stumbled upon the Smithsonian Digital Transcription project (https://transcription.si.edu) on twitter one day, and was immediately taken in by the ease of use.  The website invites volunteers to either help transcribe or review already transcribed documents.  Each document has been digitally scanned onto the site, and features image zoom tools, tips for transcribing/reviewing, a space for notes to other users, and even social media links.  I especially like the built in social media sharing features.  The project is definitely working to encourage volunteers to feel more like peers.  There is an emphasis on the public user’s work having a purpose.  Users are encouraged to think creatively, writing or reviewing in whatever manner they feel helps, as independant contributors, not typing robots.

First time users are directed to a helpful tutorial.  It explains in simple terms the goal of the project (research, searchability, engagement with primary sources).  It gives instruction on proper formatting for transcription, and how to review and make corrections.  Generally, any number of users may transcribe a project.  When one feels it is complete, they may mark it for review.  If the reviewer is satisfied, they may mark it complete, and send it for review by the Smithsonian.  Otherwise, any corrections made will reopen the project for editing, or if completed again, submit if for review by another volunteer.  The training provided is simple and to the point.  No difficulty should be feared diving in.

The projects pull topics from all over the world, from a naturalist’s personal correspondence to botanist notes from 1909 to vocabulary guides of enslaved African-Brazilans from the late 1830s.  I found the variety of topics prevents mental fatigue.  If I hit a road block with one project, I can skip over to another and start anew.

The work itself is quick and easy to come back to.  If I have to step away for a few hours, I can easily go right back to work, or find a new page that needs my attention.  Transcribing or reviewing can be done is as little a few minutes, whenever there is free time.  The flexibility of the project is liberating.  A volunteer does not have to stress out that they do not have an hour to devote to work right at the moment, they can work while they can.

Crowdsourcing projects like Smithsonian Digital Transcription allow the public to partake in historic research while watching Jeopardy.  People who might never have the time to venture to a library or archive are now able to travel to far off lands and make old thoughts through their work.  While the task can be a bit tricky (some projects require a careful eye for cursive), it is deeply rewarding.  Being able to contribute to public history, digital history, and document preservation is an excellent way to wind down a day.

 

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Exhibit Review: “Vikings” at the Royal BC Museum, Victoria, BC

 

I recently had the pleasure of traveling to the lovely city of Victoria, British Columbia for a business trip.   There was fortunately time to visit a new traveling exhibit at its first stop (Royal BC Museum) on a tour across North America:  Vikings: Lives Beyond the Legends.

The exhibit is co-produced by the Swedish History Museum in Sweden and MuseumsPartner in Austria.  The exhibit space is wide and open, leaving plenty of room for visitors to wander and linger.  Seating is built into some exhibit case pieces, allowing for moments of respite while taking in the vast amount of information on hand.  The exhibit furniture is made up of clean, white, straight lined or curved containers and walls, obviously meant to be easy to pack up and ship.  However, the furniture does an effective job providing ample safe exhibit space for the objects, as well as good space for information text.  Objects are well supported and clearly labeled.

Labels featured information in the following format: Name of object, description, place it was found, and catalog number.  I found this to provide sufficient information, however, I would have liked to have read the estimated time period of the object.  Since most of the objects on display were inorganic, I know it would be difficult to place specific pieces of jewelry, tools, etc. in specific time frames.  I do feel however it would help those interested in continuing research to have a rough  starting date (i.e. 900-1000 AD) when observing a particular object.

The exhibit is divided up into theme areas, such as everyday life, religion, death practices, craftsmanship, and trade.  I am not an expert on Viking history or that of the Peoples belonging to Scandinavia.  This information was both detailed, and a summary for me.  I felt like a visitor could go through sections quickly and get the gist of the history being shown, but someone more curious could sit down and really take it in.  This was a success.  Being able to catch the public moving through quickly on their way to the next exhibit space, and satisfying those deeply interested in the subject is a challenge.  I walked away with some new thoughts on Vikings, and an appreciation for the cultures shown.

Sprinkled throughout the theme areas were interactive equipment.  One space featured a bench with localized speakers where a listener could hear mythological stories being told.  Another invited visitors via touch screen computer to help dress an everyday person from Viking times .  A quiz via touch screen at the end of the exhibit featured a single player mode and one to compete against a partner on what was learned during the visit.  There were also several plaques spaced around other exhibits in the Royal BC Museum that asked questions relating objects in other galleries to the Vikings exhibit.  This was a neat feature that I believe will get visitors interested in the Vikings exhibit even as they explore the rest of the facility.  These interactive spaces broke up the repetition of case and text that can make museums a drag for some visitors, and helped relate information in different, interesting ways.

In general I find that some interactive spaces are hardly ever used, or no funding exists to repair them if broken.  When that happens valuable space or money is absorbed or wasted.  Here, the interactive spaces were being used respectfully by visitors, who seemed to be enjoying the stories or seeing what clothing people may have worn in 1000 AD.  The equipment was in good repair, which speaks well for those watching over it day-to-day, and those transporting it to new stops for the duration of the trip.  Everything looked well maintained.  Interactive spaces, when used well, can help the mind change gears and provide a welcome respite from endless text.

Overall, I found Vikings:  Lives Beyond the Legends to be satisfying, engaging and rewarding.  Visitors were engrossed in looking at objects, reading, interacting, and talking about what they found.  My two criticisms would be the lack of dates on the objects and the gift shop.  I feel that even a rough time frame would help to place the objects in one’s mind.  The store at the end of the exhibit seemed a bit over the top, being filled with plastic swords, horned helmets and toys.  I understand many children might want a souvenir after hearing about Vikings, but it seemed to go against the message of humanizing their story.  I do understand that money from these does support the Royal BC Museum.  Yet, these are minor issues.  The charm of the storytelling of myths, the wonder of the objects (from swords to cookware), and the relaxing flow of information made for a delightful visit.  I greatly encourage you to visit this exhibit at the Royal BC Museum, or anywhere you may find it in the future.

 

My favorite takeaway from the exhibit:  That Norse peoples incorporated their old mythological religious symbols into their new Christian art as the faith spread.

 

Vikings:  Lives Beyond the Legends runs from May 16 to November 11, 2014 at the Royal BC Museum.

 

 

 

 

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The Past and its Remembrance

The study of the past fascinates me.  Imagining the lives of those who came before; their struggles, hopes, failures and dreams is a constant source of wonder to my life.  The interpretation of those past events, those millions upon millions of lives is equally captivating.  Museums are my favorite place to reawaken those times gone past.  A book can bring a soul back to life.  A painting can at a stroke capture a long forgotten dance, or the energy of a terrific battle.  A simple set of cookware can capture the continuity of human life over centuries. Museums serve as the repositories of these talismans, and so much more.  These writings will cover museum work, the history topics connected to them, and the techniques/people/equipment/purposes at their heart.

My goal with this blog is to examine museum/history culture locally in the Pacific Northwest and nationally when possible.  Little known historical facts, new resources, exhibit reviews, and commentary are all possible topic avenues.  I hope this blog helps a forgotten moment to be found again.  I hope it helps a new exhibit to gain a few new visitors.  I hope it develops, even if by the smallest margin, the rich culture and universe of public history.

The Past burns bright; let our eyes be set on its wisdom.

 

 

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