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Building a skiascope

gilman, skiascope in use               gilman, the skiascope closed

“The theoretic value of the skiascope is incontestable.”  —Benjamin Ives Gilman

In his Museum Ideals of Purpose and Method (1918 ), Gilman gives detailed instructions for making a skiascope, a device that will allow museum to see paintings and sculptures more clearly, by blocking glare, and other distractions.

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The instructions are long and complicated. Here’s a quick pictorial guide:

First, cut out the top and bottom

skiascope - 1

Make the wires, and attach them.

skiascope - 4

Make two lining blocks, and cut a block to hold them for when you glue the fabric on.

skiascope - 3

Wrap the fabric around the blocks, glue it together. Then take it off to cut the lunettes on the end, and replace.

skiascope - 6

Glue it on. Note: his advice about wax paper lining is important!

skiascope - 5

Let the glue set, and you’re done!

skiascope - 8 skiascope - 7

Next step: take it to a museum and see if, as Gilman suggests, it changes the way you view art. I’ll try that soon. One of several adventures I’m embarking on, for my book!


For the public humanities graduates

Here’s what I told the graduating class.

graduating class 2015

It refers back to what I told them when they arrived.

Best wishes, everyone!

“Today’s Museum: Innovation, Change, and Challenge”

Here’s the presentation I gave at the Mathers Museum’s “Museums at the Crossroads: Local Knowledge, Global Encounters” workshop last week. More on the workshop here. It was a delightful event: smart people from around the world thinking about the future of museums. Video and more coming soon.

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“The Curator Rules”

Tonya Howe designed this fine poster. With apologies to Mr. Peale.

Tonya Howe designed this fine poster. With apologies to Mr. Peale.

These are the slides and my notes from my talk at Marymount University, the Bissel Lecture in the Humanities, presented April 10 as part of the Virginia Humanities Conference. My thanks to Tonya Howe for the invitation, to Marymount for their hospitality, and to the audience for its good questions.

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NOTE: The next entry in this blog is a corrected and expanded version of this talk.

Exhibit and exhibit labels workshop

I talked to the “Methods in Public Humanities” class today about exhibitions. A very quick overview, and didn’t even get to the how-to-write-good-labels part of the talk. Here are my presentations, on exhibits generally, and on exhibit labels, slightly cleaned up but without much in the way of notes.

The Curator Rules

Museum curators have certain ways of doing things, certain rules they follow. It’s important to know what these rules are – and also to realize that they can be broken.

These are notes from my talk to Catherine Whalen and Sarah Carter’s “Curatorial Practice as Experiment” course at Bard Graduate School. Catherine asked that I talk about creative curation, to inspire students in the class working on an exhibition project.

The assignment got me thinking: what’s creativity? Some part of creativity is breaking with tradition, breaking the accepted rules.

And that led me to: what are those rules? What do we take for granted when we curate exhibitions? What do we take for granted when we collect for museums? What do traditional curators do?

You need to know the rules before you can break them…

And so I tried to sketch out those rules, and offered some thoughts on where they came from. I tried, to use the academic phrase, to denaturalize them. They’re not natural laws: they are customs we have accepted.

Some of these rules are good. Some I think we should do away with. But in every case, we should not just take them for granted. How might we improve the work of museums if we’re willing to break the rules?

Here’s my talk: use the gear button at the bottom to view the presenter notes. I’ve also included, below the slide show, a printout that might be easier to use.

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Writing about the past, thinking about the future: National Museum of American History

Curator Herbert Collins in political history storage areaPhotograph by Richard Hofmeister, Neg. No. 76-13488-18. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.

My article on the history and philosophy of collecting at the National Museum of American History has been published in the Federal History JournalThe issue is freely available, here, and my essay is here. It’s a good issue: I especially recommend the article by Margo Anderson, “Public Management of Big Data: Historical Lessons from the 1940s.”

My essay was inspired by the 50th anniversary of the NMAH. I used to work there, and a former colleague asked me to write something. The director was eager to have the museum’s anniversary noted at various scholarly organizations, he said. I gave talks based on the research for this paper at the National Council for Public History conference last year and the Society for the History of Technology Conference in October.

But whether this was the kind of history the director had in mind – I don’t know. It’s fairly critical, both of the curators, and of the museum’s management.

I argue that the museum’s management was never able to figure out how to build and use the museum’s collections as a part of its mission. Curatorial prerogative was the watchword of the Smithsonian when the museum was founded. It has remained so, at least through the most recent of many hand-wringing “what about the collections?” reports, a decade ago. Curatorial prerogative has not shifted with the changing goals of the institution; that’s a managerial failing.

But perhaps the curators were fighting the good fight, and management misguided? My reading of the archives suggest that the curators never really figured out how the collections could be useful, either. In the early years, they adopted a philosophy of collecting based on natural history. But they were never able to make a good argument for history collections, beyond the small fraction that were put on display or, for a few of the curators, their own research. Not that they haven’t tried – I suggest that the material culture movement of the 1980s came out of an attempt to provide a rationale for all those artifacts.

At the urging of the editor of the journal, I added a conclusion looking at the recent past, and into the future. How might collecting philosophy change to make collections more useful? How might the smaller number of curators now at the museum cover the territory they need to? I suggest that taking advantage of new technologies to allow curators to connect the public with collections might help them make a case for collections in a way that the “potential research” argument never did.

It was a bit odd, and also fascinating, to write about a place where I used to work, and about a history that I had some connection with. What I wrote is not a memoir, though, like Bob Post’s recent book on the museum; I tried to keep my distance. But I kept thinking: I wish I knew this history when I was there. Working in a bureaucracy, in a big institution, one takes for granted the way things are done. Tradition, and the myth of a golden age, are powerful. Knowing the history – how it came to be that way – would have made it easier to question it, to think about how things might change.

Perhaps this essay, and other historical work on the museum, will help encourage new thinking not only about the past, but also the future.

“Museum Histories” course, Spring 2015

Here’s the syllabus for my upcoming course, AMST1903I. It’s a history of museums, mostly American, history and science as well as art.

The syllabus includes links to many of the articles, but you’ll find some are behind paywalls.

Any feedback welcome!

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Crossing borders, or not, at the AHA

I go to the American Historical Association annual meeting about once every ten years. The usual complaints keep me away: too big, too crazy, most of the sessions too far outside my interests. And the more specific complaint you’d expect from someone interested in public history and public humanities: too academic.

Just everyone I talked to had similar complaints. Even more important: they always have.

That’s one of the lessons from a fine talk at a fine session (now that I’ve got over the complaining): Rob Townsend’s talk on the early history of the AHA, in a session that looked at the history of public history. The organization has heard complaints for a century or so, ever since it got big enough and powerful enough to define exactly what counted as history, or more precisely, academic history.

The AHA, at its founding, included what today would be public history and archives, but in the 1910s and 20s it got into the business of policing boundaries. Archivists and local historians set up their own organizations, and the AHA narrowed its focus to, mostly, the research work of academic historians. It’s a typical story of professionalization.

Rob’s paper, the other talks at that history of public history session, and some provocative twitter discussions, got me thinking about boundaries: setting them, policing them, crossing them.

And once it was in the air, I saw it everywhere. We were all policing boundaries, or trying to open borders, or trying to work across various lines. True, I went to sessions that were mostly on the fringes of the academic history business – public history, digital history, museums – and it’s from the borderlands that you see the borders.

It’s in those borderlands, too, that battles happen. Even sessions designed to help cross boundaries could reveal treacherous terrain. A session of historians looking at history museums made clear to me just how difficult it can be to even see across the boundary, much less cross it. Why did these historians, many of whom had studied museums, or consulted with them, seem so oblivious to the parts of the museum that weren’t directly historical in nature: visitors, for example? Or perhaps well-meaning historians were crossing into my territory, raising my hackles? Was I defending my territory? There are two sides to fences, and you need two countries for a border station. Diplomacy is hard; but it starts with respect, not the assumption of empire. As Jesse Stumel tweeted, “Maybe we should stop thinking about inviting people into a tent and work to get ourselves outside tents. #AHA2015 #s158.”

And I did see some good progress in crossing boundaries. A session on scholarship beyond text showed historians working well with artists, creating comic books and historically informed abstract art that drew equally on the skills of artist and historian. Digital history, a field much concerned with definitions and making a space for itself, has begun to make its way into the mainstream of historical work: papers in a session on the history of slavery made strong arguments for crowdsourcing, GIS, and tumblr for new ways to answer important questions and reach new audiences. Digital humanities is finding ways to be both its own field as well as a set of tools for other fields. A session on archaeology and history made clear just how much could be gained from combining two fields in imaginative ways, though also the challenges of talking across disciplines. William Walker’s talk, on the ways that hybrid fields were created at the Smithsonian in the postwar era, suggested the possibility of new combinations: folklore/history, for example.

But there’s also something to be said for the freedom new fields offer. Denise Meringolo raised the question, in that history of public history session, about how public history might be different if it didn’t see itself as a sub-section of history, if it weren’t located in history departments. Will noted that interdisciplinarity is a key aspect of the development of public history. The public humanities program at Brown is, in some ways, an answer to the question of what public history would look like if were done by the generally more boundaries-crossing-friendy of interdiscipline of American studies. It may be that its success comes the relative ease of boundary crossing that Brown, and American studies, encourages.

There’s a balance to be struck here, between creating new disciplines and defending old ones; between taking ideas and tools from other disciplines and using them in our own. between between inviting others into our tent and getting outside it.

Going to the AHA, I suppose, is one way of getting out of my tent. Like a century of conference goers, I’m annoyed by the ways in which the AHA doesn’t put my work at its center, or even make it easy to visit. But like them, and like all visitors to foreign lands, you learn things. Doing the work of crossing borders can be worth the trouble.

Be back in a decade or so.

With thanks to @DDMeringolo @urbanhumanist @ProfessMoravec @Jessifer @rbthisted @MarlaAtUmass @willcooperstown and other #twitterstorians who shaped this through their tweets and talks.