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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 https://www.vasamuseet.se/en .

To learn more about Meow Wolf, watch https://vimeo.com/172224637 or visit https://meowwolf.com/.

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Why I Read The Great Books

January 5, 2018

Thanks to HMU student, Dave Seng, for today’s post.

"So, let great authors have their due, as time, which is the author of authors, be not deprived of his due, which is further and further to discover truth." – Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning

I began my educational journey as a liberal arts student in the late 1990s, about the time when postmodern critical theory was winding down and scholars were trying to figure out whom won the battles of the “canon” and whom lost the “theory wars.” I remember it well. Leaving this intellectual climate behind, I decided to investigate the nature of the so-called “canon” and the Great Books associated with it, to determine for myself where such a curriculum is useful and why it is considered controversial. (I realize that many Great Books programs exist and not all adhere to the same list, so when I use the term Great Books, I am referring to the collection edited and published by the Encyclopedia Britannica.) With this background in mind, I intentionally reflect on my journey through critical theory as an undergraduate to exploring what I have discovered about the Great Books as a university professor.

When I consider my formative undergraduate years at a private liberal arts college, steeped in postmodern rhetoric, I discover an amazing thing about the Great Books. Those involved in the theory wars, or those bent on advocating their particular critical position often held to schools of thought founded by the Great Authors of the Western intellectual tradition. Those most critical of the Great Books claim that the canon is intolerant, exclusive, and written by “dead white males.” Interestingly, these same theorists usually uphold schools of thought founded by Hegel (historicism), Nietzsche (perspectivism), Kierkegaard (existential subjectivism), Marx (Marxism), or Freud (analytic egoism)—Great Authors, all. Try as one might, it is not an easy thing to discard the inherent value of the Great Books. The reason for this is simple. One must accept the foundational truth claims of the Western intellectual tradition in order to criticize it. Furthermore, the Great Books speak to timeless concerns of human importance that transcend the “isms” and academic fashions of the day. Rather, they seek to enlighten us as to what it means to be rational and thoughtful individuals in the pursuit of truth. These significant insights have helped me make some important applications in my own teaching career.

First, however, we see that foundational and essential truths about reality and logic cannot be denied. Even the most committed existentialist or postmodernist accepts the law of non-contradiction when asserting the subjectivity of truth or that all reality is historically and culturally determined. Important values such as rationalism, liberalism, and constitutional government with a strong emphasis on individual freedom, provides the cultural foundation from which postmodernism is built. These ideas began with the Greeks and are still with us today. Have you asked yourself, “what is the nature of justice”? So did Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides—they and others in the Great Books investigate this very question deeply and significantly. In a sense, postmodernism, itself, is part of what is known as the “Great Conversation.”

The Great Conversation, a term coined by Robert Hutchins and explicated by Mortimer Adler, recognizes inquiry, discussion, informed rational debate, pursuit of truth, and free exchange of ideas. As enduring values, this conversation began with Plato, Herodotus, and Aristotle, and continues today. Postmodern critical theory owes its very existence to the Western tradition because inquiry and informed debate are foundational values. Questioning a canon is a tradition unto itself, and is also found in the Great Conversation. The Great Conversation is simply the discussion that began with the Greeks and continues today through philosophers, historians, poets, and scientists who seek to help us understand what it means to exist as finite human beings in the pursuit of truth and the nature of reality. These ultimate concerns are still thoughtfully, rationally, and critically examined by many in our own time.

Plato’s Socrates often confronts skeptics regarding truth and the nature of reality. Hume, Hobbes, and Descartes, just to name a few, often criticized the scholastic tradition that preceded them. In this sense, postmodernism is just emphasizing one side of the Great Conversation (although one of postmodernism’s discontinuities is that very few in the Western intellectual tradition gave up on the idea of truth). There are very few genuinely new ideas in contemporary culture, and when I read the Great Books, I am often reminded that not only are there rarely new ideas, I further discover that these Great Authors can provide a framework and way of thinking about current ideas in ways that can be beneficial.

In addition, since critical theory itself is influenced by Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Freud, and even Heidegger, postmodernism ironically demonstrates the enduring values of the Western tradition. While postmodern critical theory has lost its standing in the pantheon of academic fads (many just accept postmodern premises as true and move on), it is important to maintain the critical spirit of inquiry that the Great Books teach us. We must ask ourselves, “what if Descartes, Marx, or Freud were wrong”? And what insights could we gain from such discussion and investigation? One thing I have learned from teaching college students is that they are more than willing to challenge what they think is received authority. Something magical happens when one learns how to rationally, logically, and critically engage Great Ideas and discover enduring truths.

Another thing I learned while reading the Great Books is that every curriculum and field of study holds to a particular canon. One claim against the Great Books is that it is elitist and selective. In truth, however, all fields of human thought have a set of selected, received texts. Consider any course at any university, anywhere. At the class level, every professor identifies a selected book list from which his or her students will learn. Let us take an example from outside the humanities. In computer science, one could hardly be considered competent or knowledgeable in the field without knowing about Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Konrad Zuse, or Grace Hopper. Of course, others can and should be named, but the point is that it is not elitist to draw on the most foundational thinkers in any field. The Great Conversation is simply the development and transmission of the Western heritage's core values and knowledge - even if the foundational knowledge is sometimes tacit as Hayek, Popper, and Polanyi are apt to remind us. Every field by its very nature has to be selective.

Moving beyond critical theory, I discovered that the Great Books speak profoundly even in fields in which they may not be apparent. When I became a professor at a large research university, I began to see how my Great Books training served as a deep well from which I could draw, even though I do not teach courses immediately associated with the liberal arts. Upon a deeper examination, however, the economics of information course which I teach relates to ideas of Marx, Smith, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, Keynes, and Weber, and involves timeless truths regarding the nature of wealth, government, and democracy. While it must be admitted that our own culture and technology have changed dramatically since these authors wrote, the enduring truths of which they speak - social cooperation, voluntary exchange, and the nature of supply and demand - persist and remain extremely relevant today. The principles of how value is determined in economics are true whether one is discussing the nature of free markets, digital information goods, or Bitcoin. In my Open Source Culture and History of Hacking class, we not only examine the foundational figures of the field, but explore timeless questions about the nature of reason, rationality, and consciousness as we explore what it means to be rational, intentional beings in an age of artificial intelligence (AI). Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas, and Descartes still have important things to say about the nature of rational beings that directly relate to AI research issues today. And many of the Great Books have insightful things to say about the effects of technology on society. In all honesty, I have never had a student complain about one of these great authors; in most cases they are fascinated and excited that they can apply the information they have learned in a general education or philosophy course to what they are learning in one of my classes. Far from being irrelevant, these great texts have wonderful things to say about the nature of our lives in the Twenty-First Century. Even today, the Great Books provoke interesting and challenging ideas.

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The Pins of Pinterest

August 18, 2017

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

Recently, I was looking for some graphic that would help explain a few points about ancient Rome. My initial Google search sent me to mostly Pinterest sites. I thought that was interesting since I seldom use Pinterest. I did a little bit more digging and found some things that I wanted (both on and off Pinterest). But as I completed this process, I began to wonder about our reliance upon sites like Pinterest. It functions as an amalgam of posts, displayed as a stream of scrollable ideas which may fit your particular topic. It relies on pins, tags and keywords. As I navigated through the wide variety of pins, I wondered as to whether it was the best use of my time. So, today's blog is a result of my interest in Pinterest.

First off, the name is catchy, clever and witty. It combines function with interest. In other words, it is an online bulletin board that lets you pin only what you are currently interested in. You can create separate boards for each category of interest personal to you. The name relies on one of the oldest uses of “pin” - a small device used for fastening things. These boards enable you to follow other people, though, and have multiple topics all online (replacing that messy corkboard in the kitchen). So, now, your bulletin board of interests can be shared with friends, family or strangers. (It does allow you to create a personalized and private board just for you if you do not want to share everything.)

Pinterest supplies ideas that fill a specific need. They have recipes, lesson plans, craft projects, home decorating tips, how-tos and DIYs. This makes me wonder whether or not we are constantly replicating each other and if this replication is a problem? If we think of the way that the human imagination functions, I see that Pinterest can be both beneficial and harmful. For example, Pinterest is full of art projects and ideas. One can learn about a particular art form or medium simply by copying another's projects and in fact it is a good way to begin. Creative minds will be able to find creative ideas and expand upon them in any medium, I believe. To truly own the idea, however, one must not stop there. Copying allows only for skills and technique, but not necessarily creative thought. So, while the people on Pinterest supply ideas, the user must still transform that idea into a personal creative piece. In other words, Pinterest generates ideas, which is wonderful, but one must also generate ideas in order to advance.

The second issue that I find with Pinterest is misinformation. Of course, this problem is not reserved to Pinterest. Misinformation can be found all over the internet and is something that I mentioned in my article on blogs too. In the case of Pinterest, however, many teaching aides appear helpful, but I did find some with errors. Therefore, as with all information, it is best to do your own homework instead of simply relying on the first lesson that you find. Having said that, however, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Those who have done the research and posted thoughtful lesson plans or worksheets offer a beneficial service to educators and families everywhere. When I began teaching, other teachers presented me with a slew of handouts. I was able to copy these at will. Pinterest offers the same thing, but with much better technology, better graphics and eye-grabbing appeal, all of which resonates with the contemporary classroom.

I find that, in general, the people of Pinterest are really creative and thoughtful, especially with their own interests. The communities built upon common pins reinforces connections with a community. However, it struggles with the same issues as blogs and Facebook. For one, everything revolves around marketing. Many sites ask for money and most contain pop-up advertisements. The advertisements often align with the pinned information. For example, if you have clicked on an idea about crafts, you might see an advertisement for a craft store. In other words, each pin unwittingly leaves a trail of information about you, the user. Also, by creating online communities that revolve only around our own interests, we may be limiting ourselves in unforeseen ways. It is worth thinking about the way that we construct both an online self and an online community. Are these the same as their public counterparts?

None of the pros or cons that I have listed means much of anything by itself. I simply like to think about the technology that we rely upon everyday, how it interacts with ourselves and the various hats we wear. How does this technology affect my life in unseen ways? What do we gain by using the newest trend? What do we lose? One final factor that I have not mentioned in any of these blogs on technology is the idea of time. Is the time spent online useful? Has it increased your ability to be a better person in any way? I find that, personally, there is a line. Some information is helpful, but endless searching is fruitless and wasteful. Where is your line regarding time spent navigating social media?

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Meeting the Gods

August 4, 2017

“As a student I wanted to stand up at the mic during Q and A to challenge the terms under which one applies the term myth not to mention legend but I did not because the line was long because the speaker was well-known well-respected in other words he was a legend but not a myth.” - Layli Long Soldier, “Whereas”

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

As a former high school English teacher, I appreciate any new materials that make teaching easy and accessible. Recently, I read some of Rick Riordan's series of Percy Jackson and the Olympians. I was very impressed by the amount of accurate detail that he included in his texts about the ancient gods and goddesses. In The Lightning Thief, the reader is introduced to some very important mythic figures such as the Fates, Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Medusa and a variety of other gods.

Classical mythology can seem chaotic because it is. The first gods are often both spouse and sibling. Many of them try to kill each other and there is a lot of fear between fathers and sons. Also, the Greek gods are also often the Roman gods, only with different names. Therefore, mapping a family tree becomes complicated very quickly. Instead of simply creating a map, Riordan places the gods into a modern-day environment, allowing fictitious humans to interact with them. In many cases, the gods are true to their mythic figures. Riordan offers details about ancient societies also. Not coincidentally, the reader comes to learn that Percy is actually short for Perseus. Many of the details of Percy's life actually reflect the legend of Perseus. It is interesting to see where the stories intertwine and mix and diverge. Of course, I am already familiar with a good number of these gods, and so I am capable of navigating between the ancient myth and modern-day invention.

I appreciate Riordan's attention to detail and resolve to faithfully describe the gods. Whereas the a few internet sites actually offer some useful details, I was fairly disappointed with the film. I understand that it is difficult to introduce and develop many characters in so short a space, however, I feel that the Disney version left out many important details. I believe that Riordan's text offered a great opportunity since he already laid the groundwork in bringing an ancient belief system into contemporary life. Unfortunately, the movie left out all details about the ancient society. Instead, the movie focused on stunts and action. From the very beginning, the movie vastly differed from the text. In the same way that the Disney film of Hercules left out the motivating factor for Hercules' anguish (the fact that Hera hated him because he was an illegitimate son of Zeus), this film leaves out necessary portions about nearly all of the gods. There is very little understanding about the gods and their motivations, which removes a lot of the impact and tension. Also, the book is set up as a bit of a mystery, which is altogether missing in the movie.

I find this film interpretation very disappointing because the groundwork had already been done. I believe that many missed opportunities turned the film into a fairly flat piece. While it did attempt a nod or two in the direction of ancient myth, they were few and far between. Having said all of that, I do believe that students can learn a great deal from an actual comparison between text and film. For example, in reading the text, then outlining the characters, and finally comparing story lines between text and movie, a student might gain a good working understanding of mythology. This would be a fairly straightforward English assignment, easily implemented in most classrooms. I can think of a number of other exercises which would translate into other necessary skills. So, regardless of my disappointment in the film, a combination of film and text still manages to create useful and worthwhile lessons.

One of the most important elements, that I see, is the way in which myth is depicted in each medium. The quote from Long Soldier at the beginning of this post hints at the fact that, while myths were once a system of belief, as soon as we start to use the term 'myth', then we no longer believe in the transcendent power of that story. Therefore, myths are an ancient system of belief, one in which we no longer believe. As an example of ancient thought, however, myth continues to be relevant. While the story loses power as systems of belief change, the idea that spurred the story is still very much relevant. And this is where Riordan's work excels. He has transported the story into present-day, making it both comic and tragic for teenagers today. He grabs teenagers' attention by creating contemporary contexts for ancient myths. I like this technique in getting readers interested, in making the stories real and relevant for them, and also in displaying a use for creative writing. All in all, I believe that Riordan's work offers an interesting and unique path for a first meeting with the gods.

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