Friday, September 26, 2014

The Law Making Machine

Title: The Law Making Machine
Year: Unknown
Material: Screen
Creator: Unknown
Collection: National Constitution Center

Touch screens. Interactive games. Listening stations. Simulated experiences. If you've visited the National Constitution Center, you've probably participated in at least one of these activities. During this week's visit, I was presented with the task of exploring an interactive in the NCC's main exhibition. The object that best captured my attention in what can be an overstimulating space was The Law Making Machine

Incorporating text, animation and audio, visitors can explore how laws are made by participating in a simulated bill review process. Selecting "The Environmental Security Act," animated characters and accompanying text, informed me that this particular bill proposes a $2.00 surcharge to be added to the entrance fees for all visitors to National Parks. These funds would help to preserve and protect endangered plants and animals in the parks. Presented in the voice of the characters, the audio provides multiple points of view and reflects the opinions of the animated characters, members of a reviewing committee and the House of Representatives. The text in comparison, is presented in a well-informed bipartisan voice that narrates the law making process. I watch as characters present the issue and the texts reminds me that many bills die at this stage in the process. 
The power was in my hands!
At this point, I am given the decision making power and have the option to vote “Yes” or “No.” Selecting “Yes,” I watch as the bill enters the House of Representatives and is debated. The text notes that if passed, the bill moves on to the Senate, and if approved, sent on to the President who can sign the act into law. 

This object may be important to anyone interested in learning more about the U.S. legislative process and the specific roles played by each branches of government. Providing a participatory experience, this interactive “illuminate[s] constitutional ideals,” and “inspire[s] active citizenship,” both of which are central to the museum’s missionBecause of its subject matter, it would not be as engaging or well understood by audiences younger than a middle school level. As an object that tells its story though both audio and visuals, it could also be difficult for visitors with visual or hearing impairments to fully enjoy.

Midway through the main exhibition space, this interactive is displayed on four individual pods. The pods face a center partition, which defines the space and helps to block out other sounds, screens, and activities nearby. The partition also serves to slow down the flow of visitor traffic throughout the circular gallery space. Paused, my attention was drawn the interactive. Ahead of it stands a large, spiraling sculpture made of law-related books, which speaks to the subject of the interactive. I also interpreted it to suggest the vast, twisting and often convoluted nature of the law making process.

Hingy arms?
The audio, visuals, text, and users role in the decision-making process are key to making this object effective, however they may also send mixed messages. As you can see here, the animated characters have hinges at their joints and resemble paper dolls or puppets, like these:
Political Circus
Stars and Stripes Forever.
Puppets! All of you!
Their voices are also very melodramatic; whiny and aggressive, not pleasing to the ear. One could view this entire presentation as a caricature of governmental leaders and processes. Users who may already take an “anti-government” stance could walk away feeling even more cynical. While it is intended to entertain, shouldn't the interactive also treat the legislative process with respect? After all, we’re talking about a museum that is seeking to honor and celebrate our country’s legal process and encourage citizen engagement, not mock it. On the other hand, perhaps this representation elicits meaningful conversation for visitors and allows for a critical discourse about systems of power. The choice word of "Machine" in the title suggests to me that this is an underlying intention on behalf of the museum.

There are many online resources that could help audiences of all ages to better understand the legislative process. I like this one for grade schoolersand this slightly more complex chart for adults.
Legislative Process
To read more about how museums can educate, provoke, and inspire through interactive experiences, check out Nina Simon's book, The Participatory Museum.

As it stands, the purpose of this object is to engage visitors, however a few elements could be added to extend the learning beyond the museum walls. For instance, visitors could have the option to email specific content to themselves, or type or record comments during the debate. In addition to voting on the bill, some visitors might enjoy being able to express their ideas and reactions.

In the midst of a sensory overloaded moment, I was generally relieved to discover The Law Making Machine. It is informative, slightly provocative and a little fun.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Chertoff Mural

Title: The Chertoff Mural
Year: 1961
Material: Paint on Plaster
Creator: Maurice Sendak
Collection: The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia

Larry and Nina Chertoff were small children when their parents’ close friend, Maurice Sendak, aka “Uncle Moo Moo,” painted this playful parade of animals and children on the wall of their New York City apartment. Two lucky kids, right? Decades later, as they cleared out the apartment after their mother’s death, Larry and Nina feared that the mural would likely be painted over by new tenants. Knowing that the Rosenbach Museum and Library (now officially The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia) housed much of Sendak’s work and would be an ideal home for the mural, the Chertoff’s contacted the museum.  Eager to ensure the mural's longevity, the museum convinced the building owner to permit conservators to remove an entire wall in order to move and preserve the artwork.
A conservator at work
It was an extensive and fascinating journey from the Upper West Side to Delancey Place that included lots of sawing, heavy lifting, conservation, repair and time…oh, and money. These videos here and here help to tell the whole story.

Clearly, the mural's importance has spread beyond the Chertoff family; book and art collectors, art conservators, illustrators, families, Rosenbach staff, and funders of the restoration project all top the list. The mural demonstrates Sendak’s techniques and compositional style and includes characters from his other works: The little girl appears to be Rosie from The Sign on Rosie’s Door, the dog (inspired by Sendak’s own dog Jennie) appears in several books, including Kenny’s Window and Where The Wild Things Are.

Currently the mural is displayed on a wall at center of the Sendak Gallery. Text panels and interactives below the image introduce the history of the object, how it was conserved (including video footage), and explores its characters (visitors can tap to read more about each character on a touch screen). The text and audio are presented in a narrative museum voice that is formal, yet accessible to both children and adults.

Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life (1967)
Framed black and white book illustrations line the opposing wall and provide deeper insight into Sendak’s characters and illustrations. Created between 1965-1970, these drawings demonstrate how the artist’s work evolved. By this period, Sendak felt that the children’s picture book industry had devolved into a cookie-cutter, money driven machine. In response, he continued to experiment and presented ideas and images that many considered to be subversive. 

More info
To enrich my exploration, I could watch additional videos about the mural, Sendak's other work, and interviews with the author online. Another strategy would be to camp out in the children's section of any Free Library branch and read every available Sendak book. Other authors have waxed poetic about Sendak and might be worth a read.

As a text label in the gallery notes, Sendak wasn’t afraid to challenge authority or convention, both in his images and text: “Sendak was direct when it came to formerly taboo presentations about race and ethnicity, children’s bodies, unconventional behaviors and , as with the Where the Wild Things- characters that frightened adults (but usually not kids).”  While it would be difficult to find fault with this playful mural, some people may feel some of Sendak’s other work is frightening or offensive, and be disinterested in the Chertoff mural by association.
Goblins from Outside Over There
Wild Things!

According to an article on, this restoration project (including removal, transportation, conservation and installation) cost around $200,000.00.  Funding was provided by the William B. Dietrich Foundation, the Connelly Foundation, the McLean Contributionship, and individual contributions. To play the devil’s advocate for a minute,  was it financially worth it? Does the mural tell a strong enough story? How does its significance compare to other Sendak works? Sure, some of the characters might relate to other works by artist,  but the mural is a random collection of children and animals. Had it illustrated a scene directly from a book, perhaps it would be worth saving. I don’t support this opposing argument, particularly in light of the recent news that most of the Sendak collection will be leaving the Rosenbach. Now that it may be one of the remaining facets of the Sendak in the Rosenbach’s collection, Rosie, Jennie the dog, and the rest of the parade will continue to celebrate the author and honor the strong relationship he had with this great Philadelphia institution.

To further engage viewers with this object, I might create a scavenger hunt that challenges visitors (young audiences, in particular) to identify the mural's characters (or characters with similar characteristics) in works throughout the gallery. Additionally, prompted with questions like, “Where is the parade going?” “What occasion are they celebrating?” “How do you think these characters are feeling?” visitors (middle school aged to adults) could participate in a writing exercise. Perhaps this user-generated content could be then collected and shared on social media, or within an interactive in the exhibit. There is talk of the mural moving to the Central Branch of the Free Library, which could engage a larger audience and allow for new programming. No matter its home, I'm confident that this parade of characters will continue to resonate with audiences, young and old.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Peale's Museum

Title: Peale’s Museum
Year: 1784-1794
Material: Oil on Wood
Creator: James Peale Sr.
Collection: American Philosophical Society

Peale's Museum
During last week’s visit to the American Philosophical Society, I was drawn to a small, simply framed oil painting, entitled Peale’s Museum. While many of the objects in the exhibit, Jefferson, Philadelphia and the Founding of a Nation were intricate prints of buildings, manuscripts and large portraits, this tiny painting, approximately 7X9 inches in size, caught my eye. The image centers on several red brick and brown rooftops. Windows and chimneys protrude from the buildings forming numerous angles. A wooden fence appears at the foreground, with some white items hanging over the top (clothes, perhaps?). Overall, the lines and textures of the painting are soft and some of the forms are indistinct.

Presented in a narrative museum voice, the object label is crucial to identifying the object and understanding why it is on display. I was particularly interested to learn that the skylight in the center of the painting was the first skylight in Philadelphia. The sky-lit room within was Peale’s first portrait gallery!  It would be challenging to rely on visual clues to identify the painting’s subject or significance.

Mastodon Bones
What is that significance, you ask? Peale’s Museum, and other objects displayed nearby contribute to a larger narrative about the history of the building where the APS Museum now stands, and gives insight into early members of the American Philosophical Society, including Charles Wilson Peale. In 1786, Peale opened the first museum of natural history in the United States. First at 3rd and Lombard Streets (as depicted in the painting), the museum was relocated to Independence Hall and then Philosophical Hall (the building where is it currently on display). The object could be important to APS members, historians, and anyone who is interested in the history of Philadelphia, art, museology, science, and quirky specimens (Peale had many-check out those bones!).

Seeing that Charles Wilson Peale was a member of APS, and that his brother created the artwork, perhaps the painting was directly acquired from the Peale family.
The painting is displayed slightly above eye level near the middle of a short wall that is otherwise empty. However, due to the placement of other objects, and the fact that the exhibition space is not entirely square, the painting almost feels tucked away in a corner. Speaking with my classmates, some commented that they had initially walked by the painting without seeing it.
Admission Ticket
The Artist in His Museum
The painting hangs behind a glass case that displays an admission ticket to the Peale Museum and a print of Charles Wilson Peale proudly standing in his museum. These objects help to bring the story of the Peale Museum to life—the richly illustrated ticket depicts works in the collection, represents the admission process, and also serves as a museum memento (I often save ticket stubs to events and concerts, don't you?). Peering beyond Peale in the foreground, the print The Artist in His Museum gives viewers a sneak peek into the Peale's collection, animating his cabinet of curiosities. While these objects contribute significantly to our understanding of Peale’s Museum, the positioning of the display case adds to this “tucked-away-in-a-corner” feeling. Perhaps these few objects are an intentional aside, as the exhibit primarily focuses on Thomas Jefferson. Visitors could find this side narrative to be refreshing, while others might be perplexed by why is it included in the exhibition.

This painting may not be as interesting to Thomas Jefferson buffs whose sole purpose of visiting the APS museum is to view the content directly associated with him. Disinterest could also stem from a slight accessibility issue; the painting’s small size and placement within the gallery may be prohibitive for some viewers, particularly on a crowded day. 

The Peale Museum collection included paintings, sculpture and a large collection of taxidermied birds and animals. To discover more about Peale and his collection, spend some time online or curl up with a book, such as Charles Wilson Peale and His World by Edgar P. Richardson and Mr. Peale's Museum: Charles Willson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art by Charles Coleman Sellers (quite a title, right?).

The Artist in His Museum
A visit to PAFA might also enrich my understanding of this object, as they have several objects in their collect that were created by or relate to Charles Wilson Peale. One painting for instance, The Old Museum, by Reubens Peale,elaborates on James Peale's painting. He added a garden and a "Peale Museum” sign to the scene. PAFA also has a oil on canvas iteration of the print on view at the APS Museum.
The Old Museum

To further engage audiences with this object, I could create an interactive that invites viewers 'inside the painting' to explore the art and scientific specimens that were part of Peale’s collection. Viewers could view a gallery of images, tag their favorites, and create their own virtual cabinet of curiosities. Prior to developing any kind of programming or experience, I would likely attempt to change the placement of Peale’s Museum so that it is easier to view. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Bronze Sculpture: Jasper Johns at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Bronze Sculpture
Title: Painted Bronze
Year: 1960
Material: Painted bronze
Creator: Jasper Johns
Collection: On loan from the collection of the artist

I've always been drawn to objects that have the ability to surprise; at first glance, an object may look like one thing, but upon closer inspection, it is something completely different, or something more. While it is actually a bronze sculpture, this week's object appears to be a Savarin Coffee can filled with well-used paintbrushes of various shapes and sizes. It is important to audiences who appreciate or want to better understand contemporary art, smaller artistic movements like Neo-Dadaism and most specifically, the work and life of American artist Jasper Johns.

Bronze Sculpture, along with the other pieces throughout the gallery where it is displayed at the PMA, embodies the work of an artist that has made a meaningful impact on contemporary art. The artwork provides insight into Jasper Johns, his intents, interests, and inspirations. As its accompanying text panel (which is presented in a narrative museum voice) describes, Johns uses conventional artistic practices, such as casting and painting, to recreate everyday objects. He is interested in how viewers might perceive everyday objects as works of art, and vice versa. Studying the object, I asked myself, 'Am I looking at a bunch of dirty brushes in a can or a sculpture?' I like when an artwork elicits this sort of inquiry and engagement.

Like all of the artworks in the room, this sculpture is on loan from the collection of the artist. While this is conjecture, I would think that all of the objects were loaned to the museum at the same time, for the same length of time. The PMA does have at least five other Johns works in their permanent collection, none of which are currently on view.

The object is encased in a glass box atop a rectangular white pedestal that is about three feet tall. The pedestal is positioned several feet away from a wall so that visitors can walk 360 degrees around the sculpture.  In the Studio and Fall, both large encaustic works, hang on the wall to the right and left of the sculpture. Across the room, two additional cases of a similar size display sculptures of everyday objects, including a flashlight and light bulbs. 

Painting with Two Balls
Large scale canvases hang on each wall of the space, including my personal favorite Johns piece, Painting with Two Balls. These works help to give viewers a more comprehensive view of Johns as an artist, and showcase other materials and techniques he utilizes in his work, including encaustic, collage and plaster relief.

To enrich my understanding of Bronze Sculpture, I could pick up a book about the life and art of Jasper Johns, and delve into contemporary art movements such as Abstract Impressionism, Pop Art, and Neo-Dadaism through books, online resources, and documentaries.  
More info here
More info here
More info here

Individuals who do not appreciate contemporary art would not be interested in this object, nor likely any of Jasper Johns’ work. One might argue that there is nothing artistic or creative about replicating everyday objects (although tell that to the European Masters painters and their bowls of fruit). Critics could assert that this work has no meaning or value, that it is not more significant than an actual coffee can full of paintbrushes. But what is significance and who or what determines it? These are the types of questions I think Jasper Johns poses to his viewers. 

Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp
To further engage viewers with this object, one could develop a museum tour or lecture focused on the use of paradoxes and iconography in contemporary art. In addition to Jasper Johns, the work of artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning could be highlighted, and the approaches of each artist compared and contrasted. Participants could learn about how conventional symbols create and carry meaning, as well as how visual objects can be divorced from what they may represent in another context. They could also be invited to consider and discuss the roles objects play in their own lives. Like me, they may be surprised by what they find.
Campbell's Soup Cans by Andy Warhol

Monday, September 1, 2014

Favorite Object

Object Title: Nana’s Table
Year Received: 2004
Year Made: 1940s
Material: Plastic/Formica laminate, wood, metal, chrome coating
Creator: Unknown
Me at Nana's table, circa 1986.

Some my earliest memories were created at my Nana’s kitchen table. Nana lived across town and I would often spend time alone with her. She was my favorite person. We’d dine on salads of iceberg lettuce and sliced tomatoes with a dash of Catalina dressing served in small, smooth bowls that were designed to look like wood, but were actually some sort of plastic. Those same bowls would hold breakfasts of Wheat Chex and sliced banana. Lunch would often be PB&J on wheat bread, cleanly cut into four squares, cottage cheese, apple slices, Fig Newtons, all neatly arranged on small white plates.

Nana's table has a 2 inch plastic or Formica top and shiny, chrome legs. It is round, but can be extended into a oval by flipping up an extra leaf. A small television sat on one end of the table, for watching The Price Is Right, Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune (this was back when Vanna White had to manually turn the letters). I would draw as Nana worked on crossword puzzles, or hand mending projects. I’d sip orange juice from a Garfield cup while Nana had her double insulated plastic tumbler, which I later realized wasn't just seltzer.
Notice the owl necklace.
Nana was an original hipster.

Nana passed away when I was in college, and I was fortunate to inherit this table. At first, it was prominently displayed in the center of the kitchen in apartments I shared with friends and created many new memories around it. I’d often find my roommate's cat on the table and shooing it away would yell, “Nana does not allow cats on the table!!”

Here’s the thing, though, I’ve intentionally omitted one significant detail about this object: it’s Pepto Bismal pink.  While it made perfect sense alongside the pastel wallpaper and countertops in Nana’s kitchen, displayed anywhere else, its color evokes an upset stomach. So, for many years, aesthetics have outweighed sentimentality. When my boyfriend-now-husband and I moved in together, I agreed that his stainless steel-topped table (great craigslist find, eventually resold on craigslist when we moved to solid wood) was a better option for our space. Nana’s table was dismantled and stored in the basement.

When we bought our house last year, Nana’s table remained disassembled and currently resides along a wall in our basement, surrounded by shelves of camping gear, tools, scraps of wood and bottles of vintage buttons (also from Nana). These objects represent some of my hobbies: hiking and camping, DIY house projects often created by wood scraps salvaged from dumpsters, and hoarding buttons.

We are now on our third dining table, this one purchased from a neighbor, Joel.
Current kitchen table.
Breakfast is ready!
It had belonged to Joel's grandmother and had been sitting in his basement for nine years. In case you were wondering, I feel a complexity of emotions about this; Somedays I feel I am eating with someone else’s grandmother while Nana waits alone in the cold, dark basement.

While it has not been displayed or used in over six years, Nana’s table remains one of my most prized possessions. It embodies so many meals and memories. It almost embodies Nana, a person. I can’t let go. 

Nana's table would be of no interest to those who dislike retro furniture, sentimental family heirlooms, round tables, and shades of pink. From the view of a mid-century furniture collector, this may be a story of neglect, rather than love. Am I neglecting this table? Neglecting my past? Should I either use it or sell it? Am I being selfish by neither using it nor passing it along? Maybe.

So, now what? Sometimes I think about refinishing the top to something more my taste. When I’m in a mood to purge, I think about selling it to a local vintage furniture shop. They’d take good care of it, I think, find it a good home.To better understand Nana’s table, I could explore the history of 1950s furniture

To better appreciate its primary material, I could read one of the many books that celebrate Formica.

There are some good videos to get me started in an overhaul project: and my dad would also be a good resource, for the Pepto Bismal pink was actually his doing.  Formerly pale yellow and white-specked, Nana asked my dad to refinish the table to compliment her kitchen updates in the 1970s.

I am determined to give Nana’s table a new life, even if it means throwing a table cloth over it and using it for art and sewing projects in the basement for a while. I want to build new stories around it, while crafting with buttons and enjoying bourbon and Fig Newtons. Won’t you join me?