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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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From Chaucer to Chappelle

January 12, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post: from Chaucer to Chappelle

“Let fancy fly, with all her lofty graces,/ Pack wisdom in, with tenderness and passion,/ But never put good fooling out of fashion.” - Goethe

Chaucer's wit still resonates today. In The Canterbury Tales he developed characters that might also fit straight into contemporary society. Whether read in the original or a translation, Chaucer is simply fun to read. He is funny, irreverent and poignant. I want to demonstrate just two of the possible ways in which Chaucer filters into the present. My ideas may not square with your understanding of Chaucer and if that's the case, post a comment and let's start a discussion of humor's qualities all the way from Chaucer to today!

First, stand-up comedy is a fairly new form of comedy. The routines make us laugh (hopefully) but also search for a larger point (hopefully). Stand-up often contains a raw quality that makes us laugh about an uncomfortable truth, just as Chaucer does in something like the “Miller's Tale”. A comedian's craft relies heavily upon the combination of language, word choice, subject matter, rhythm and narrative. None know this lesson more intimately than stand-up comedians whose feedback is immediate and face-to-face with an audience. Reliance upon recognized narrative techniques brings the joke, punchline or story toward a harsh truth which we must communally face. Chaucer developed a sort of humor based upon these uncomfortable truths through the lens of a pilgrimage. His brilliant scheme combines a random assortment of odd personalities who perfectly reflect society's variety. This scheme enables him to poke fun at a wide array of cultural differences (among other things). Literally, everything is ripe for a joke in Chaucer – from potty humor to personal faith to corruption. I believe that Chaucer's success has affected the path of comedy in general, and stand-up comedy more specifically.

First, irreverence. Chaucer did not shy away from uncomfortable narratives. In the introduction to the 1958 Everyman edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Professor Cawley writes, “[S]olemnity is avoided by virtue of Chaucer's unfailing sense of proportion and unerring eye for the humorous incongruities of life”. In other words, Chaucer's study of human nature included those parts which often make us uncomfortable, but he balances these with equality (he makes fun of everyone) and also proportion (not everything is a joke). In a similar way, Dave Chappelle, actor and comedian, recently finished a three-part Netflix series in which he continued to push hot-button issues. Chappelle could not be more forthright with the fact that, at some point, he will offend everyone. And that, according to both Chaucer and Chappelle, might just make us realize something important about ourselves. The Canterbury Tales pokes fun at everyone, even Chaucer himself. Chaucer traveled the world in a way that was rare for his time. He met all sorts of personalities, and I wonder if this is what drove him to write the way that he did. Was Chaucer inspired to write of morality through stories of bawdy embarrassment because he recognized humor's ability to equalize awkward situations? Humor of this type is just, fair and equally unsettling. However, this article in The National Review claims that no comedian can be universally embraced because even comedy is partisan. I think perhaps the author misses the point of Chappelle's comedy, which is not necessarily to push a single agenda, but rather to draw out the ironies present in our lives. Chappelle claims that Americans' heightened sensitivity began to intrude upon his comedy sketches in a negative way. I think a comedian like Chaucer or Chappelle would likely claim that we all participate in these ironies, unwitting or not, and that doesn't make us political, it makes us human. For them, humor is one way in which we can gain a better understanding of our own biases. Laughing at others is insensitive, laughing at ourselves is uncomfortable, but laughing together is social and redemptive.

Second, potty humor. We all remember the Miller's Tale which ends with a kiss on the backside and some fart jokes. Basic human nature was funny then, and it is funny now. One can find these jokes anywhere, but it might surprise you to see it in children's literature. This is another rapidly expanding space in contemporary society. It often combines poetics and morality since children enjoy rhythm and rhyme, but also have many lessons to learn. The sing-song sounds are intended to develop a child's language skills, but are a bit too formal for speech. Therefore, these sorts of rhyme schemes have mostly fallen out of modern-day speech, but are very useful in portraying a message. Chaucer too uses these techniques which is why they would be best spoken aloud. In fact, he uses poetic voice to further distinguish one character from another (something that Shakespeare quickly picked up on). Andrea Beaty is a contemporary author of children's literature. Her book, Iggy Peck, Architect, published in 2007, was an instant success. Written in rhyme, it includes funny, silly details such as the fact that Iggy Peck can build with any material – even soiled diapers. This type of potty humor is funny to kids, but also adults. It's not high-brow, but it is pretty universal.

Humor illuminates incongruities in a unique way. Sometimes we do not know the right emotion to accompany a joke. Often jokes pass our personal comfort levels – and this is the time when we should transition to discussion. The time when we have reached a sensitive point is the best time to develop informed and open conversation. And this is just one reason why I am grateful for Chaucer!

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Consumer Narratives

December 1, 2017

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

Before reading today's blog, I suggest watching the following four minute music video:

Taylor Swift “Look What You Made Me Do

It would be hard to pin down my musical tastes. Truly, I can listen to nearly anything. While I am not an expert in anything, I feel pretty compelled to discuss Taylor Swift's recent video for “Look What You Made Me Do” from the album Reputation, released in 2017. This song pulls hard at an anger that feels primitive. To me, both song and video are haunted with complexity – in the sense of anger that lacks any specific resolution. This is sort of a coming-of-age video, but is hardly that concise.

Taylor Swift signed her first album deal at age 14 and has been at the top of the charts since. I cannot imagine life as a teenage celebrity, though America has certainly had a number of them. It seems that we often read about their crisis later in life. I suppose that I will call it a “coming-of-age” crisis for lack of a better term, but it's far more than that. Their struggles are splashed about by media, fans and critics forever, forever google-able. And I am sure that the constant demand of reliving life outside of your private space makes life feel a bit out of control. As a result, in the video, the new Taylor stomps on all previous Taylors while also claiming that the old Taylor is dead. It makes me wonder...what are we singing along to here?

What follows are my notes on the video. The fast and furious pace of the video only increases anxiety, anger and emotion. The colors move from dark to vibrant depending upon the scene. And Taylor's eyes center the whole piece – closely engaging with us, or shutting us out entirely.

First: Haunted, dark, destruction, TS lights shine from a graveyard filled with fog, crows, and some mystery swamp. Her tomb reads: “Here lies TAYLOR SWIFT'S REPUTATION”. Then zombie Taylor crawls from the crypt, scraping. Demoralized? Or free? Not sure yet. She sings: “I don't like your little games, don't like your tilted stage, the role you made me play, the fool, no I don't like you.” Why intro with zombie Taylor? This is a retrospective. Are we supposed to understand a self-continuum? Is there a point at which the self becomes something other? Is she irretrievably separated from the former, more naïve self? Is the zombie born from a combination of innocence and pain?

Quick switch: There's a flash of beautiful, young, all-dressed in white Taylor in the grave. Eyes closed, casket open. Is she a bride, virgin, child, all of innocence? Then flash forward to young, rich Taylor soaking in diamonds, surrounded by mirrors – reflections of self. She focuses on us. Repeats, “No I don't like you.” Only now we know more about what she doesn't like, “I don't like your perfect crime, how you laugh when you lie, you said the gun was mine, is it cruel? No I don't like you.”

Next: mirrors evolve into Taylor at the top of a golden throne, red dress. Papal throne? Snakes crawl up the throne. All snakes stop at “OH!” Snakes slither and also serve tea. Are these false prophets, or false friends? How can a celebrity trust anything? (If I were you, I wouldn't drink the tea, Taylor.) She sings, “I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time. I've got a list of names and yours is in red underlined. I check it once and then I check it twice, OH”.... She's about to jump again, but I'm stumped here. What is the red dress underlining? This hardened version of Taylor (in response to whatever made her hard - and I think the viewer has a number of ideas about those outside forces) wears a vicious, red underbelly. This hardened version has consumed at least some of what made her hard while simultaneously quoting Santa Claus. And that worries me.

Jump to car crash. “Look what you made me do, look what you made me do, look what you just made me do, look what you just made me do!” Gold race car meets streetlight in slow motion, jewels flying next to coffee, platinum blond hair swirls on the head tilt, still slow motion. Sunglasses permanently fixed, masking the ever-expressive eyes. She wears a cheetah coat and black sequined dress and grasps a Grammy award. Passenger = cheetah. Paparazzi watches, snaps photos, but doesn't help in any way, and never fear, damage exists on the car alone. No one is concerned – driver and cheetah included. Flames from the car flicker in the background, upstaged by flashing cameras. This feels very personal – and makes me think of the impossible emotional situations that celebrities must navigate every day.

Next: Taylor swinging in a cage. This is not the circus? “I...don't like your kingdom....keys they once belonged to me you asked me for a place to sleep, locked me out and threw a feast”. Birdcage... are we talking Maya Angelou's birdcage? Does a birdcage now represent all levels of imprisonment? Orange dress, island flair, the horrendous juxtaposition of color in captivity. Who are the guards – they look like ninjas from a chess club? Don't they know that white makes the first move? And still she swings above their knives in the cage with champagne and lobster. How are we to interpret that? Maybe the feast is something altogether unhealthy. Maybe the feast is flesh. (I am waiting to see the zombie again – she feels very close to the crypt inside this cage.)

Now: Bank robbers in catmasks, everyone falls to the floor. Choreographed? Group of ninja men have been replaced by girls who stash gold. Taylor rips off her mask: “The world moves on another day another drama drama but not for me all I think about is karma karma.” Gold baseball bat tips to the screen, points like the eyes. Baseball bat circles and all cats look up. Look up, towards the door. Is this another type of jail cell – why are the pretty little cats loading up riches? Maybe there's something richer than gold.

Now she's in a motorcycle gang? I mean, now she's in a motorcycle gang. Maybe the same girls, without cute masks. Does everything take place at night? Tough to tell with the constant switching. Headlights on, face center: “Maybe I got mine, but you'll all get yours!...

“Baby I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time.” Enter S&M Taylor. Red and black theme continues. “I check my list and yours is in red underlined”. Santa's list again, underscored by red and blue neon underlines. (Remember the feast and the tea? More of the thing that she hates has been imbibed.) Even harder now, bodies appear robotic and synthetic. The bodies, the robots, reflect red lights, not stop lights, but more like red light districts. (I don't know about you, but I'm waiting for the ball to drop like in Minority Report.) If we have entered a new zone, this may be darker than the crypt at the beginning. Are we still in a retrospective? How does time function in a music video – especially one which may weave in a bit of autobiography? I'm learning that virtual death comes at a great cost to the still living.

Black fishnets. Now she's the boss. Strong entrance, messy hair. Those doors swing open as the birdcage didn't. This must be free. In four minutes, this video has shown a number of geometric realms...lots of lines and cages ripe for crossing and opening. The chessmen have all changed into queered figures wearing “I love TS” tops. Who is the you? Media? Audience? People from her past? And what defines participation at this point? It seems we all listen, snapping along with the beat, feet tapping, a quick sway of the hips, much like Taylor's fishnet self. Is she inviting us into the room, or removing herself from all connection? Or maybe something altogether else.

“Rep” at the top of the pile. Doesn't trust anyone. She kicks at the climbing Taylors. Can we say that she's standing on the backs of more innocent Taylors? Or that she's kicked all previous versions of Taylor out? Taylor and her rep stand in front of a neon cross. If she hasn't smashed your innocence, I think it might be coming. Wait for it.

Repeat: “I don't trust nobody and nobody trusts me. I'll be the actress starring in your bad dreams.” The Taylor pile falls, of course, but you knew that it would. And then she says, “The old Taylor can't come to the phone right now....Why?...Oh, cuz she's dead.” Two second zombie shot and then choreographed fishnets jump in. The lyrics “look what you made me do” repeat often, kind of like smiling when you mean to cry. Has she figured out how to laugh while lying? If so, then innocence isn't subjugated, it's replaced by something mean, nasty and slimy, like the snakes.

Taylor's plane awaits, gold, of course, but sawed in half, dripping with the red-painted “reputation”. Outside the plane, all former video Taylors argue amongst themselves. The Grammy Taylor says: “Umm, I would very much like to excluded from this narrative.” And I think you know the answer to that.

Is anyone satisfied at the end of this song? The angst aches. What is my reputation as a consumer, and, honestly, can I be excluded from this narrative?

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