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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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October Discussion Review

October 27, 2017

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

In most cases, letter writing became fashionable only after the establishment of a postal service. However, state business has been conducted via the written letter since the beginning of formal governments. Our most recent Quarterly Discussion focused on six different letters from the likes of Seneca all the way up to George H. W. Bush. We looked at Leonardo da Vinci's job application in the form of a letter to the Duke of Milan. We discussed Gandhi's letter to Hitler. We wondered about Plutarch's letter to his wife upon the loss of their child. These letters are rich with details about time periods, but also about the human condition. I am so grateful to the people who dedicated time out of their day to chat with me about the curiosities and random features of these letters.

"Man Writing a Letter" by Gabriël Metsu - National Gallery of Ireland, Public Domain. Wikipedia Commons.

"Man Writing a Letter" by Gabriël Metsu - National Gallery of Ireland, Public Domain. Wikipedia Commons.

 

The discussion hit upon many fascinating ideas that are still relevant and resonant. For example, Seneca's letter XLVII is often described as his letter regarding “Masters and Slaves”. There is much more to this letter, however, which addresses friendship in general. He asks that we care for others rather than expect something from them. His insistence that fortune changes often and without warning is a universal message, affecting everyone from emperors to slaves. In this letter, he asks that we value character, not utility. Plutarch, likewise, places importance on virtue. In his letter to his wife, he admonishes societies that seek pleasure rather than virtue. His idea of happiness has nothing to do with temporal or momentary enjoyment. Instead, he writes, “For you have often heard that felicity depends on correct reasoning in a stable habit, and that the changes due to fortune occasion no serious departure from it and do not bring with them a falling away that destroys the character of our lives.” A “stable habit” ensures that reason and virtue weigh all actions.

And these two ideas – virtue universally applied coupled with Plutarch's warnings – bring me to the Gandhi's letter to Hitler. In 1940, Gandhi proposed a path of non-violence to one of the world's the most violent men. I find it striking, but also completely appropriate, that Gandhi should write a direct appeal to Hitler. Gandhi claims that violence is “nobody's monopoly”. He further explains that violence always tries to outdo itself, so someone will get a bigger, better system, regardless of all of your preparations. In other words, these means come to a fruitless end. Gandhi proposes non-violence instead, which he claims is a force that, “if organized, can without doubt match itself against a combination of all of the most violent forces in the world.” One of the participants in our discussion noted the amazing complexity of the following argument. Gandhi proposes non-violence, but also says that he will not use non-violence to fight the British rule in India. He suspends all non-violent efforts. He claims that the British have overextended themselves and does not want to detract them from war efforts. It is astounding to think that, after a lifetime of protest and at a time particularly suited to his success, he would set aside political differences. He must, of course, make it clear to Hitler that he will not be a tool in Hitler's destructive agenda. In other words, Hitler's community will never include India, despite the fact that Gandhi desperately wants his country's freedom. The fact that he sets aside his entire life's agenda makes me believe that Gandhi understood the stakes.

However, some participants also questioned Gandhi's naiveté. And this question plagues me. Is Gandhi naïve in addressing Hitler? Or is it exactly to his point? I think that Gandhi's modus operandi seeks to always address others with respect and humility. He achieves this tone -even!- in his letter to Hitler. Two things that I wonder. First, is the divide between complete pacifist and one bent upon destruction too great? Are they simply incompatible notions, so much so, that a mind devoted entirely to one of those principles will not be able to identify with or understand the principles of the other? Also, non-violence has never been tested against something as drastic as total annihilation. Would a non-violent solution have worked quickly enough to counter something like the Holocaust? It seems that talking about colonization, while problematic, divisive and destructive, is not the same thing as talking about Hitler's vision of purity. Are we talking about different degrees of the same thing, or entirely separate things altogether? In other words, I wonder if Gandhi was indeed a bit naïve in the sense that he simply could not imagine destruction on the pace and scale that Hitler imagined. Of course, this question remains unanswerable. I find it important, however, that this letter is available for the historical record, if for no other reason than it demonstrates a great generosity and the willingness to communicate. He writes, “We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity, especially in the estimation of men like me who believe in universal friendliness.” Gandhi separates the man from his actions, which creates space for reversal or change. Unfortunately, Hitler disregarded the appeal.

If history is to offer us any roadmap for the future, it is well worth our time to step into letters from the past. Many thanks to those who spent time opening my eyes to the layers hidden within these letters.

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Linguistic Clues

September 8, 2017

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

According to Merriam-Webster, a clue is:

  1. something that guides through an intricate procedure or maze of difficulties or
  2. a piece of evidence that leads one toward the solution of a problem

Clue offers one example of how language changes and is, therefore, the subject of today's blog. I love this word because it visually expresses its meaning better than the string of the four letters c-l-u-e. Somehow this word morphed from clew – or a ball of yarn or thread – into clue (as defined above). Both words are still in use today, but clue exists in the mainstream, while clew is known only to those interested in fiber arts. To understand how this happens, we have to reach back into ancient mythology and understand one of the myths of young Theseus.

King Minos of Crete demanded yearly payments from Athens in the form of seven men and seven women to feed his Minotaur. In the third year of the tribute, Theseus, son of King Aegeus, asked to be sent as one of the seven male pledges. Therefore, fourteen young Athenian men and women entered the Labyrinth with the Minotaur. No one had ever escaped the Labyrinth or the Minotaur, until Theseus. He, of course, killed the beast. As happens with so many of the myths involving heroes, however, he required some help to navigate the Labyrinth. Ariadne, King Minos's daughter, instantly fell in love with Theseus. She gave him a spool of thread – or a clew – which unraveled as he traveled through the Labyrinth. After slaying the bull, he followed the magical thread back to the entrance. Theseus sailed away from Crete with both his pride and his prize: Ariadne. (Unfortunately, Theseus's gratitude did not extend very far because he soon abandoned Ariadne on the shores of Naxos. Do not worry about Ariadne, however, as Dionysus soon rescued her.)

The first use of clew dates back to somewhere near 900. Originally recorded in Old English as cliwen or cleowen, over time, the final 'n' sound dropped off and became clew in Middle English. This word is still used today to describe yarn. Clue, in the sense of figuring out a puzzle, first came about in the 1600s and now exists as a stand-alone concept. The OED credits a poem from Michael Drayton in 1605 with the first metaphorical usage. Drayton wrote, “Loosing the clew which led us safely in, [We] Are lost within this Labyrinth of lust.” Of course today, we take for granted that this concept has long existed. For example, it has become the title for mysteries, games and children's television shows. In so doing, it becomes a literal example of its own definition. Walking backward through language gives literal clues to the history of culture and the human mind. For some reason, the metaphor of walking a labyrinth resonated with a large majority or English speakers. As the word gained in popularity, the more abstract definition slowly replaced the physicality of any labyrinth.

I have this theory that human understanding is proportionally linked to our separation from nature. This perceived independence from nature actually moves us toward a more figurative language – and yet, perhaps deprives us of the ability (or interest) to understand the etymology of basic words. As daily pace increases, we are forced to rely upon derivatives of nature – much the same as our language. “Clue” is a simplistic example of this notion in which the concept is driven by an actual object. It is no coincidence that clue comes from a literal cord or tether – something that binds us to oral traditions – yet, I doubt that many people know its history. That our current understanding of clue is a figure of speech, or that it comes from ancient Greek myths. Just as I did not. And having discovered this new treasure, I am overwhelmed with the way that language carries such a depth of knowledge.

Why is it important to think about the reasons that figurative speech might become more common than literal? Why is it important to understand the etymology of the word? How does the history of the word enhance our definition of clue? These are questions that I ask every time I am working with translation...which makes it painfully clear why translation is so slow and laborious. Each word is a wormhole in its own way. But it also gives a better understanding of just how rich we are in words.

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Parentheses

January 6, 2017

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

The translation of Plutarch's Parallel Lives contains some extremely long and complicated sentences. It comes as no surprise that the Dryden translations of Plutarch suffer from a lack of punctuation since the original Greek did not contain any punctuation either. In fact, scholars today cannot completely agree upon when to use a comma versus parentheses. Sometimes punctuation is a matter of personal taste and sometimes it is clear cut. Michael Palmer, a scholar on ancient Greek texts, discusses the importance of understanding punctuation. He writes,

“For a competent reader of Ancient Greek to fail to question the punctuation in our printed editions of the Ancient Greek texts is an abdication of a significant part of our responsibility. If we don’t struggle with the punctuation, we are simply handing that responsibility off to the editors of those texts. While that is a reasonable thing for students early in the study of the language to do, it is not a reasonable thing for accomplished readers to do. Question the punctuation. Struggle with it. Ask how the text would change if we punctuated it differently. What options are reasonable? Which ones are not? This is a part of what it means to read seriously.”

 

Thinking about his quest to wrestle with punctuation, I began to wonder about the use and invention of parentheses. Parenthesis (a single bracket) comes from the Greek roots par-, -en and thesis. Literally, it means “to put beside”. Parentheses behave like commas, but are somehow more of a deviation than a parenthetical phrase set aside by commas. Even Strunk and White list this as a difficult rule. Rule number three from the Elements of Style says, “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas”. And then, they go on to explain that, “This rule is difficult to apply; it is frequently hard to decide whether a single word, such as however, or a brief phrase is or is not parenthetic. If the interruption to the flow of the sentence is but slight, the commas may be safely omitted. But whether the interruption is slight or considerable, never omit one comma and leave the other”. One assumes that the same would be true for parentheses. One main difference may be that parentheses only work in pairs, whereas commas can stand alone. Strunk and White never directly address when to use commas versus when to use parentheses, though they do explain how to incorporate punctuation within the parenthetical phrase itself (see Chapter Three). (Of course, contemporary social media texts now enable one to use a single parenthesis in place of an emoticon. Emoticons and languages like computer codes offer an entirely new style of communication that requires discussion some other time.)

In this article, Neil Gaiman admits that parenthetical phrases allow a bit of the author to come forward. Shakespeare used asides to give the audience privileged knowledge, whereas someone like C.S. Lewis uses them to inform the reader of a personal opinion. It remains unclear as to how much weight should be placed on the text in parentheses, however. For example, the same article then goes on to claim that the parenthetical phrases carry less meaning than the rest of the text. It says, “In her book Quoting Speech in Early English (2011), Colette Moore notes that parentheses, like other marks of punctuation, originally had both 'elocutionary and grammatical functions. . . . . [W]e see that whether through vocal or syntactic means, the parentheses are taken as a means to downplay the significance of the material enclosed within.'” This brings back the point to Plutarch's use of parenthetical phrases. The original Greek form did not allow for parentheses, but I wonder if parenthetic phrases existed in the original, without visible indicators.

The following example (from Plutarch's "Camillus") is just one of many that has sparked my interest in the use of punctuation in ancient texts. After the Gauls invaded Rome and burned much of it, Plutarch notes that the vestal virgins fled the city. Yet, in this passage, he divulges a lot more information than the fact that they fled. Instead, he offers cultural and historical insights into the meaning of fire. While interesting and informative, it seems out of place in the midst of the siege of Rome. It seems to me that, besides the first sentence, the rest of this paragraph is actually a parenthetic phrase.

“But the consecrated fire the vestal virgins took, and fled with it, as likewise their other sacred things. Some write that they have nothing in their charge but the ever-living fire which Numa had ordained to be worshipped as the principle of all things; for fire is the most active thing in nature, and all production is either motion, or attended with motion; all the other parts of matter, so long as they are without warmth, lie sluggish and dead, and require the accession of a sort of soul or vitality in the principle of heat; and upon that accession, in whatever way, immediately receive a capacity either of acting or being acted upon. And thus Numa, a man curious in such things, and whose wisdom made it thought that he conversed with the Muses, consecrated fire, and ordained it to be kept ever burning, as an image of that eternal power which orders and actuates all things.”

Little is known about the first use of parentheses. Erasmus was the first to label the marks, which he called lunula because they appeared like half-moons. Since then, they continued in use, though sparingly, until present day. Currently, dashes, commas or parentheses can be used with almost equal function. Now we even use footnotes and endnotes. Clearly there is a need for this tool, but what is the best, most direct, clearest form of communicating information that pertains, but only slightly, to the main text? As a reader, how do we receive parenthetic information? What are your thoughts on punctuation?

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