Museum Culture

January 26, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Recently, I read an article that claimed museum culture is changing. I have been pondering this idea for some time. Culture is preserved in many ways, and certainly museums play a large role. As with everything else, technology affects all of our capabilities. Therefore, I think we should examine how technology may affect a future generation's museum experience. This article claims that: “A 2017 report by marketing firm LaPlaca Cohen called 'Culture Track' suggests that the definition of culture is changing. Participants in the study said they would much rather be entertained than educated, and preferred social interactions, as opposed to quiet reflection, when attending cultural events like exhibitions.”

After reading that, my first question was: is education not a form of entertainment? For me, it certainly is, but in all honesty, this hasn't always been the case. As a child, my parents visited every museum possible, and I often missed the benefits of these trips due to stubborness, youth, or lack of imagination. I can speak to a handful that blew me away and another dozen that bored me to tears. This, however, reflects more on me than the museums I would guess. And, speaking as an adult, I would be very sad to see museums minimized into a category of experiential versus informational. This diminishes all museums.

After reading that same article, Anna Johnson, a retired Curator of Education, said her first question was: why should a marketing firm define museum culture? That should be the job of each museum and of each of us. She has an important point – the museum must define what they are representing, and then go about devising a way to attract a population. However, having said that, I also wonder at the ways in which a growing population devoted to instantaneous feeds, high-speed data and images challenges a museum. Merriam-Webster defines a museum as “an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value.” An immediate difficulty arises: the definition includes a value judgment. Therefore, museums are tasked with preserving objects of worth, but who makes this determination? And furthermore, how does one convince others of an object's worth?

Anna Johnson further explains: “Most museums have a list of what makes something of interest or value in their museum. For example, the provenance or history of an artifact can give it value (not monetary, although there could be a monetary value – such as in art museums). The artifact's condition is another important factor since the artifact's power often enhances story or lends credibility to an exhibit. The choices are made by curators, and sometimes the public is asked to choose and explain their choice. This change in museum culture has the public demanding more connection to exhibits. Another example is the role of educators in museums. Thirty years ago, educators were often doing arts and crafts activities instead of actually being involved in the material of the exhibit. Today educational activities often include ways for the visitor to be more involved in the exhibit. Educators are now often a critical part of the team that creates exhibits, and they represent the public and their reactions in order to become more effective in meeting the needs and interests of the public.”

In order to better explain the dilemma in creating a museum-culture, I will discuss two of my own museum experiences, both of which I highly value. The Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden holds an immense ship recovered after 333 years at the bottom of the sea. They claim that this ship is the world's only fully preserved ship from the 17th century. To say that it is impressive minimizes the feats of engineering that went into making the ship and into recovering and reorganizing this ship. The viewer walks through five different levels to see the ship from top to bottom. Its immensity also presents a challenge to museum staff. How does one access a ship of such scale? The Vasa Museum used audio, photographs and video instructions as well as smaller objects that we could manipulate. The art is described in detail and guests are able to walk around at leisure. However, in recent years, the ship's decay has increased. Their website says, “Vasa lay in the grimy waters in Stockholm for 333 years. After all these years in the water the ship was attacked by bacteria and rust. Vasa was slowly decomposing, and is still doing so today, due to a number of different factors. The museum is conducting world-leading research on how to counteract these decomposition processes. And considering the age, we must say that Vasa is in an impressive shape. Our goal is to preserve Vasa for a thousand years.” In other words, the science behind this recovery is as palpable as the history.

I greatly enjoyed this exhibit because I was able to interact with it at my own pace and ability. It was more pleasing than when I saw the Mona Lisa, for example, only because of accessibility issues. I never gained any time to access the Mona Lisa in the same way due to overcrowding. The painting remained busy throughout the day and, by the time I left, I felt as though I had barely glimpsed it. I still enjoyed the experience and am glad for having seen it in person, but the crowded area left me a bit dissatisfied. This is opposite, however, to the experience of viewing the single artifact - a large ship - which took hours to walk all the way around at my own pace and without many others in any single spot.

On the other end of the spectrum, Meow Wolf is a museum of artifacts which can be viewed with or without narrative. The museum offers minimal instruction and leaves the viewer to wander, which is part of the point as well. You are free to direct your own path. The artists have incorporated a wide variety of cultural junk, re-purposed as an art experience. Their website invites guests to “discover a multidimensional mystery house with secret passages, portals to magical worlds, climbing apparatus, and surreal, maximalist & mesmerizing art exhibits.” It begins in a 1950s house and extends into spaceships, Alice-in-Wonderland musical mushrooms and a climbing tree, large sofas, glowing trees and musical rooms which include a harp made out of lasers. The harp literally plays the movement of your body through space. There are walls to touch and fireplaces to climb through, refrigerators into other dimensions and lots of neon lights. Interacting with the artifacts is up to each guest. You can touch, sit, lay down, take photos, make movies and climb through any space. In other words, the museum acts upon you as you act upon it. Both beings change with your presence and your perspective plays a large role in understanding it.

These two museums offer experiences that greatly affected me, though they do it in very different ways. They both create a narrative that I could follow. The difference, however, is that the Vasa Ship has a narrative outside of my own interaction with it. The ship's historical record exists with or without me. On the other hand, Meow Wolf's narrative depends upon presence. These museums contain narratives which are told in vastly different ways, and yet, they are both still museums. Are these two very different museums conversing about culture in the same way? How can museums remain true to their own culture while also employing modern-day technologies? Is education simply another form of entertainment, or is it a different type of entertainment? Meow Wolf claims that their experience is “immersive”, but is it different from the Vasa Ship Museum's immersion?

To learn more about the Vasa Museum, visit .

To learn more about Meow Wolf, watch or visit

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Picasso's Guernica

September 23, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The world today doesn't make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?” - Pablo Picasso

Last week, I attended a local seminar dedicated to understanding Picasso's Guernica. There is so much written about Guernica alone, that analysis is overwhelming. But part of the truth behind Guernica is the way that it affects each viewer. Picasso's large mural painted in response to the bombing of the innocent village of Gernika, Spain by Nazi forces and Franco's regime, represents a kind of witness that seems very important for society. And yet, I find myself unable to express how the idea of witness functions in society. The painting represents a truth, but that truth is different for everybody. I believe it addresses a level of anguish that exists within each of us – it recalls our own personal experience with tragedy. Atrocities like these make us question our own strength. Part of that strength, I feel, must come from generations of witness. In other words, these are things that we want to both remember and forget. They evolve into mythic discussions, passed on orally. It is this ripple effect that interests me. The truth of Guernica will not be the same to someone who physically witnessed it as it will to someone who has heard of it. Furthermore, the idea of trying to remember and trying to forget causes an internal conflict. I wonder how this internal conflict acts upon our memories.

Everyone connects with Picasso's Guernica in some way. Whether one feels overwhelmed, or finds it ugly, hateful, beautiful or otherwise, the massive figures in the painting act upon every viewer. I find it both ironic and not that the painting never made its way to the north of Spain. Instead, after a few travels, followed by a long stay at MoMA, the painting now resides in Madrid, the capital of Spain. In one sense, the painting need never return to Gernika, which witnessed atrocity firsthand. Those who rebuilt the town already know the utter depth of the town's pain, anguish and loss and therefore do not need to see the visual reminder. On the other hand, the powerful painting expresses something to them that very possibly only they can understand. Some claim that the painting is entirely Spanish – with the bull and the horse – while others claim that it offers universal truths.

Witness, therefore, is a type of truth-act. One that expresses some knowledge gained, though this knowledge comes at great expense. In the introduction to Ethics: An Essay on Understanding Evil by Alain Badiou, Peter Hallward writes, “[F]or Badiou, an ordinary (replaceable) individual becomes irreplaceable, becomes a (singular) subject, only through this very commitment itself; it is only the commitment to a truth-process that 'induces a subject'.”  In other words, humans become irreplaceable only after “an event”. This event need not be as grand or obscene as something like the destruction in Gernika, but an event that plants a Truth into an individual, thus making them unique. Their uniqueness cannot be reconstructed, but is now singular. Also, two witnesses of the same event may arrive at very different realities, which then creates two separate accounts of witness. Hallward continues, “[T]he whole question is precisely whether such deliberation is variable, in the sense of so many variations on some kind of minimally invariant process, or forever different, in the sense of so many inventions ex nihilo, each one literally peculiar to a given procedure.” Whether or not humans achieve connection is at the heart of Badiou's search in his essay on evil. The importance of this question cannot be overstated. It is the heart of how humans process not only memories of war-acts, but any memory, and whether or not that memory can be translated to another. In this case, I feel that Picasso's Guernica demonstrates a successful act of communication, one that functions on many levels and among many cultures. However, I am not sure if it speaks to something inherent in all humans (variable) or is unique in each response (forever different).

To me, this question strikes at the very heart of what we do, not only at Harrison Middleton University, but in all discussions. How do we make our thoughts known? We use universal reference points – just as Picasso has done with Guernica. We stick directly to one text, trying to understand that single thing from many perspectives. I believe that even our own internal reference points can mean more than one thing at any time. And perhaps this is what grows our imagination. Perhaps this is also the cause of misunderstandings. Each time that I look at Guernica, I see more. Each time I discuss it, I feel more. Essentially, then, an act of witness transfers both emotion and knowledge.

“An idea is a point of departure and no more. As soon as you elaborate it, it becomes transformed by thought.” - Pablo Picasso


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A Discussion of Taste

September 2, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire certainly discusses the idea of taste. He has a very rigid understanding of what classical Roman art should be. In fact, according to Gibbon, the stagnation of Rome's art is one indicator of Rome's decline. Gibbon writes,

“The triumphal arch of Constantine still remains a melancholy proof of the decline of the arts, and a singular testimony of the meanest vanity. As it was not possible to find in the capital of the empire a sculptor who was capable of adorning that public monument, the arch of Trajan, without any respect either for his memory or for the rules of propriety, was stripped of its most elegant figures. The difference of times and persons, of actions and characters, was totally disregarded.” 

Admittedly, reusing the head of a previous emperor, does seem a tad cheap and weak.

For Gibbon, another indication of Rome's fall is when Roman artists begin to incorporate ideas from neighboring communities which they have conquered. One example arrives in the time of Alaric's rise and sack of Rome. During this time, Christianity was also in flux. With so many changes outside of Rome, change within is inevitable also. Gibbon notes that at this time, people began to adorn statues with jewels. He finds this gaudy and unnecessary. He writes, “We may observe the bad taste of the age, in dressing their statues with such awkward finery.” In his view, the embellishments demonstrate excess, not taste.

Ironically, during this same time of decline, Gibbon praises the superior skills of a single poet. He adds another layer to our understanding of Gibbon's idea of taste when he writes about Claudian. He says,

“These imperfections [of the times], are compensated in some degree by the poetical virtues of Claudian. He was endowed with rare and precious talent of raising the meanest, of adoring the most barren, and of diversifying the most similar topics; his colouring, more especially in descriptive poetry, is soft and splendid; and he seldom fails to display, and even to abuse, the advantages of a cultivated understanding, a copious fancy, an easy and sometimes forcible expression, and a perpetual flow of harmonious versification. To these commendations, independent of any accidents of time and place, we must add the peculiar merit which Claudian derived from the unfavourable circumstances of his birth. In the decline of arts and of empire, a native of Egypt, who had received the education of a Greek, assumed in a mature age the familiar use and absolute command of the Latin language; soared above the heads of his feeble contemporaries; and placed himself, after an interval of three hundred years, among the poets of ancient Rome.” 

This complicated passage about Claudian gives the reader more of an impression of Gibbon's taste. First, he appreciates Claudian's exacting language, soft and subtle, not overly dressed or forced. Second, Claudian is original. It is important to Gibbon that art be original and that imitation, again, lacks taste. Finally, the reader learns that Claudian's first language was not Latin. Gibbon clearly looks down upon his Greek education, and therefore praises him all the more for rising above it in order to grasp a clear understanding of the power and grace of Latin.

All of this leads me into a discussion of taste as supplied by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste. Obviously, here the word taste offers two different meanings. Brillat-Savarin's entire book discusses the enjoyment of food. More than that, however, it is a discussion of Taste, with a capital T. The category of taste, which Merriam-Webster lists as an individual preference or inclination, is an important indicator of virtue in both of these works. Much like Gibbon, Brillat-Savarin links virtue to elements of good taste. He judges food in the same way that Gibbon judges art, poetry and character. One gains access only through experience. Therefore, education is linked with taste in some primal way. The following excerpt comes from his meditation on the “Philosophical History of Cooking” in which he dedicates an entire section to “Roman Banqueting”. Brillat-Savarin concludes that the foreigners who sacked Rome were unfamiliar with fine foods. Gibbon labels all foreigners of little skill and education as barbarian races. Both Brillat-Savarin and Gibbon arrive at the same conclusion: they look down upon those without an educated sense of taste.

“The five or six hundred years [referring to the Greek and Roman times] which we have run through in the past few pages were happy times for cookery, as well as for those who nurtured and enjoyed it, but the arrival or rather the invasion of the Northerners changed everything, upset everything: those days of glory were followed by a long and terrible darkness.
The art of eating disappeared, at the first sight of these foreigners, with all the other arts of which it is the companion and solace. Most of the great cooks were murdered in their masters' palaces; others fled rather than prepare feasts for the oppressors of their country; the small number who remained to offer their services had the humiliation of finding them refused. Those snarling mouths, those leathery gullets, were insensible to the subtleties of refined cookery. Enormous quarters of beef and venison, quantities beyond measure of the strongest drink, were enough to charm them....
However, it is in the nature of things that what is excessive does not last long. The conquerors finally grew bored with their own cruelty: they mingled with the conquered, took on a tinge of civilization, and began to know the pleasures of a social existence.
Meals showed the influence of this alleviation. Guests were invited to them less to be stuffed than delighted, and some even began to understand that a certain attempt was being made to please them; a more amiable pleasure affected everyone, and the duties of hospitality had something gentler about them than before.
These betterments, which emerged toward the fifth century of our era, became even stronger under Charlemagne, and we can read in his Capitularies that this great king gave his own attention to making his lands furnish their best for the fine fare of his table.”

Perhaps there are cultural indicators which link Gibbon and Brillat-Savarin, since they were contemporaries of a sort. However, the idea of our education of taste is a broader discussion. Next week will continue with a discussion of art as it relates to taste.

Read more from Brillat-Savarin here.

Read more about Gibbon here or here or here or here or here.

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Los Desaparecidos

April 15, 2016

while in the midst of horror/ we fed on beauty – and that,/ is what sustained us. - Rita Dove, “Transit”


Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

Something to listen to while reading today's blog: Maná, Desapariciones (a Ruben Blades cover)

A few months back, we discussed “Women in War” on our blog. Today we couple the idea of women's tactics and resources during war times with the idea of loss. The artwork included in today's blog is meant to build upon last week's discussion of war narratives. (Many thanks to Dr. Deborah Deacon for providing today's image.)

War leaves such holes within us. While we are incapable of completely filling these holes, they still demand attention. Since everyone reacts differently, the work is personal and arduous. Funerals serve an important ritual in the passage of a loved one. They offer a transition, a sense of closure. Funerals are universally recognized as important. As the body fills a space in the ground, so too does ritual fill an emotional space.

People prepare elaborate ceremonies, words, deeds, and actions, all of these performed in a rhythm. For example, the sound of Taps draws upon each of us in a unique way. We know and understand something, not everything, but these experiences draw on the deepest of our emotions. Sometimes we may not even be aware of the cultural implications underlying the funeral ritual. Yet without the ceremony, there is an additional absence, an additional unaccounted-for space. An example of the elaborateness of funeral rites comes from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In it, he details the burial of Alaric, the first king of the Visigoths. Gibbon writes, “The ferocious character of the barbarians [Goths] was displayed in the funeral of a hero whose valour and fortune they celebrated with mournful applause. By the labour of a captive multitude they forcibly diverted the course of the Busentinus, a small river that washes the walls of Consentia. The royal sepulchre, adorned with the splendid spoils and trophies of Rome, were then restored to their natural channel; and the secret spot where the remains of Alaric had been deposited was for ever concealed by the inhuman massacre of the prisoners who had been employed to execute the work”. They diverted a river. And yet, they revered the body of the leader so much that they include more death. There is so much death involved in death. Juxtaposed to this idea of an elaborate funeral is that of the unexplained missing persons.

An extremely complex version of loss arrives in the form of missing persons. No body, no word, no sign, no knowledge. Human brains ache for a narrative, for an end, for something more. Often the brain allows for hope even in the face of the most hopeless situation. The weight of this is often unbearable and excruciating. The lack of funeral is an important note. A lot of time and energy is spent on saying goodbye. If this ceremonial rite is denied, the emotional toll on remaining family and friends is great, to say the least.

This short paragraph from George Orwell's 1984 illustrates the idea of a person who, in Orwell's sci-fi world, suddenly ceased to exist. Orwell explains the disappearance thus: “Syme had vanished. A morning came, and he was missing from work; a few thoughtless people commented on his absence. On the next day nobody mentioned him. On the third day Winston went into the vestibule of the Records Department to look at the notice board. One of the notices carried a printed list of the members of the Chess Committee, of whom Syme had been one. It looked almost exactly as it had looked before – nothing had been crossed out – but it was one name shorter. It was enough. Syme had ceased to exist; he had never existed.” Winston laments the missing name of his friend. This chess list barely records anything, just a trace of existence. Yet, Winston speaks of Syme, identified by proper name, by recollections of personal exchange. How is it possible to have a proper name without prior knowledge of an actual being? His disappearance horrifies Winston, who is even more upset that no one else responds with outrage. Obviously, a disappearance is not uncommon in this world, but still Winston holds a few key figures in his mind. Real people worthy of more than a mere removal. He wonders if they live somewhere, exiled. Or perhaps they have been captured and detained somewhere. Questions pile on top of each other without any relief or answer. Perhaps it is for this reason that Winston begins to keep a journal.

The idea of journalling is neither unique nor revolutionary (except in 1984, where it is both). The facts of a person who 'disappears' are really never to be understood. But what happens to the family left reeling in the aftermath of such an incomprehensible scenario? The amazing truth is that the mind has the ability (almost builds the ability) to maintain contact with someone (or something) which is not present. However, in building this reality, emotions bear a heavy toll. In a paper titled, “Stitches of War: Women's Commentaries on Conflict in Latin America”, Dr. Deborah Deacon (HMU) discusses an unlikely, but effective way of dealing with some of the pain. She writes about General Pinochet in Chile: “Most of the 'disappeareds' were men and students who actively opposed the right-wing dictator, leaving wives and mothers to cope with the uncertainty of their fate. The women also had to cope with the economic and emotional uncertainty that resulted from their losses”. These women began to use embroidery on burlap sacks (called arpillera) as a way of understanding and narrating their loss. This is a sharp transition from the previous use of the arpillera, which mainly depicted landscapes and animals, but rarely people.

Personally, I love these two examples of narrative, 1984 and arpilleras. To me, they clearly demonstrate certain processes of the brain required to deal with something like loss. The women of Latin America made beautiful, colorful pieces of artwork about their own personal fear, persecution and loss. It is more than art, however. It is a narrative. An experience in journalling meant to fill space, much like a body in the ground.


This arpillera is from a workshop in Guatemala started by Ramelle Gonzalez. She had to teach the Mayan women to embroider since they previously used weaving. Polyester yarn on cotton background. Photo courtesy of Dr. Deborah Deacon.

This arpillera is from a workshop in Guatemala started by Ramelle Gonzalez. She had to teach the Mayan women to embroider since they previously used weaving. Polyester yarn on cotton background. Photo courtesy of Dr. Deborah Deacon.

This arpillera from Guatemala depicts the destruction of a Mayan village. Its vibrant colors normally hint at life and joy. Viewed from afar, the mass of green generally pleases the eye, until we begin to discriminate green plants from green soldiers. People fall amid fire, hands raised in fear and chaos. The presence of children devastates. The lower left quadrant shows a woman, child on her back, trying to stop blood from another's head wound. To write of such brutality in vibrant colors makes me think that these women wanted to allow for life among the ruins. Yet certainly, the authors of this narrative grieve deeply.

Arpilleras are a testament to life, to hope, to beauty. They survive among ruins and, I would say, they thrive. Humans pursue narrative as a form of understanding. These texts certainly represent life, in all of its diversity and strangeness. Personally, I am amazed that the authors and/or artists were capable of such emotions post-apocalypse. And I have to believe that this is evidence of the insurmountable power of the human mind, and hopefully, of love.


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