Wednesday, November 17, 2010

First Person Museum- Exhibit Review

November 4th was the opening for the “First Person Museum” exhibit at the Painted Bride. The exhibit is a pilot for a larger “museum of the people” that the First Person Arts organization hopes to develop. The space, exhibition style and methodology in outreach are clearly being hashed out as the unique project has unfolded in the last few months. The mission of the exhibit is to take people’s personal objects and share them “along with the stories behind them, both online and at a live multi-media exhibition”. Objects and stories were collected through outreach to community organizations and First Person sponsored “StoryCircles”.

First Person Arts seemed to reach out to a broad audience through advertisements on SEPTA buses and trains, pieces in alternative weeklies and community outreach. Judging by the crowd during the opening night of the exhibit, First Person seemed to have been successful in promoting the event. The mixture of people from or associated with the project team, community partners, students or those who submitted objects created a diverse, lively opening night crowd. From what I could gather, there was a significant amount of walk-in traffic from the First Friday arts gallery crawl attending as well, a byproduct of .the reputation and location of the Painted Bride.

The physical exhibit is comprised of a total of sixteen objects spilt between two rooms on the ground floor, with a loft-like second floor serving as an extension of the exhibition space. Thirteen objects and their associated info are in the gallery space of the Painted Bride, with the other three located in a public gathering area that doubles as a gallery. Each object is presented with three or four elements that contextualize them to the “museum” visitor; a personal quote, audio-visual component, object history and photo of the person who contributed the object. Each headshot of the person who contributed the objects is mounted alongside a quote gleaned from stories developed during First Person StoryCircle workshops.

The personal stories, object histories and audio-visual components add up to create a denser and multifaceted experience of the object that none provide on their own. Each respective element is succinct and concise in the information provided. On their own, they don’t create a rich level of interpretation, but encourage the visitor to experience the various elements without overwhelming them. Visitors can commit to different levels of experiencing the object. The headshots that accompany the quotes are successful at visually profiling the racial and generational diversity of those who submitted objects an aim of the First Person organization.

Three documentary videos and five audio pieces accompany the objects integrating of the actual voices of the persons into the exhibit. Getting a “first person” account of the stories seemed the most engaging element of the four for many. In many off the cuff reviews offered by opening night attendees, they emphasized that they were touched by the stories they heard through the videos or audio vignettes.

The upstairs “Media Living Room” is comprised of a couch, desk and television rather than objects themselves. The living room presents another opportunity to experience the videos and audio tours with a desk and worksheets to submit your own story. The “media living room” works as a reflective space to experience the videos and audio pieces, but maybe doesn’t make the best use of the space. The three objects that are segregated off in the other room would maybe benefit from being in the living room space in closer proximity to the other objects. On a second visit to the space, an event was in the meeting area where the three objects are and they were completely inaccessible. The downstairs gallery entrance also has the interactive desk element which encourages visitors to think about their own objects and offer their own personal stories. A worksheet prompts the visitor for their object, story and “story theme”. They can post to a bulletin board in both the media living room and in the entrance to the space creating a fluctuating component in the exhibit.

Despite a large opening crowd that left the exhibit space cramped, visitors seemed invested in experiencing the full presentation of the object. On the later Saturday afternoon visit, some visitors spent time with the documentaries where some just breezed through the text or objects. Watching visitors on the return highlighted the fact that the multiple elements of objects allow the visitor to commit to different levels of experience. The space created is purposefully inviting, homey and domestic. The couches and chairs in the space, are simple, functional and accessible. The soft lighting provided by an assortment of Ikea lamps scattered about the space adds to the aforementioned effects. Visitors to the space on both days were using the space to take in the stories, the exhibit as a whole or simply relax as they wait for an event or person.

Objects are on or in dressers or tables with text beside them. Although each object differs slightly, there is generally formula to the presentation. A positive byproduct of the formula is that it gives the visitor a way to easily traverse the unconventional presentation. Although somewhat unconscious of the formula when first navigating the exhibit, I became aware of it when losing track of the different elements of Carla’s ring. The object and history are on an end table beside a chair, but the personal photos and quote are on the opposing wall. It was a source of confusion for myself and for other visitors I spoke with.

There is some pairing of the utilitarian use or traditional relationship between the object and furniture. Clothes like the boxers, shirt and infant clothes are placed in dresser drawers and the stuffed rhino is on a rocking chair. In initial discussions with Aaron Goldblatt, exhibit designer, it seemed as though there would often be more playful pairing of objects and furniture within a more cohesive house-like tableau. The overall space doesn’t feel as much like an actual living space or recreated home, but instead an assemblage of furniture that allude to that type of space. A successful aspect however is that many of the objects that create the tableau are clearly secondhand. The nicks and scratches on the exhibits give the sense that they are objects with their own histories behind them as well. It shows how much can be done with little financial resources and fits in well with the overall exhibit aim. Despite some of the drawbacks, it creates an overall feel consistent with the mission of the exhibit and organization.

The opening night was incredibly crowded pushing some of the flaws of the space and design to the fore. It was somewhat hard for people to circulate throughout the layout and furniture. The headphones weren’t very successful at canceling out the noise and the speakers on the televisions couldn’t compete with crowd conversation. That said, the opening night is not the norm and would expose weaknesses in the design of any exhibit. The return visit on a Saturday morning to a light crowd rendered all of that moot.

On my second visit I was able to sit with a laptop for an hour taking in the space, visitors and work. It is a comfortable place to experience the exhibit without the pressures and scrutiny one would encounter in most museums. The First Person Museum on a whole is successful in stating a clear mission and working within its means and a temporary arrangement to achieve it. It would be interesting to see how the idea is expanded based on the extensive input they seemed to gather from visitors.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Object Captions: Carla's Wedding Ring

I made three captions. The first is about the wedding ring and marital tradition, the second is about divorce as Carla's ring is an artifact from one. The third is about the "double ring" tradition as this ring is one of a pair.

Caption 1- About Marriage

Wedding rings are a commonly understood symbol of marriage, a practice started in ancient Egypt. They are typically worn on the fourth finger as it contains an artery that leads to the heart. Although not required by law, exchanging rings can be a central part of the wedding ceremony.

Caption 2- About Divorce

Divorce is a legal process that ends a marital union. The first documented case in the colonies was in Massachusetts in 1639. Current estimates are that forty percent of U.S. marriages end in divorce. Divorcees commonly cease wearing the wedding ring on their finger to symbolize the divorce.

Caption 3- About the Double Band

Where the wedding ring was once worn only by the bride, the 1940’s and 1950’s saw an increase in the “double band”, rings worn by both the bride and groom. The “double band” concept was invented and promoted by the jewelry industry and has since become customary.

Written by John R. Pettit

Monday, September 27, 2010

Assignment 4- Exhibit Design

1-Mission Statement

The First Person Museum seeks to explore the histories and stories embedded in everyday objects. Their stated mission is "to share those objects, along with the stories behind them, both online and at a live multi-media exhibition". The FPM shows the visitor that oftentimes there can be an unexpected and rich history in the objects worth illuminating. What do a ring, stuffed bear, wedding dress, pan and shawl mean to the people who own them and more broadly what do they mean to our society at large?

2- Organize your storyline into "galieries of thought"

The FPM arrangement could use a combination of category and theme. Carla's Wedding Ring could be stand for "marriage" or more abstractly "loss". The objects in the First Person Museum all lend themselves well to the concept of observation or deduction as well. There would be be traditional labels that provide historical context. The juxtaposition of "loss" and the historical information could give the viewer a clue, but leave it to the viewer to speculate on any deeper meaning.
3- Inventory the content and pin down the most important facts

Viewers should be left to discover more information as "history detectives". Discovery of the personal meanings of the objects could be presented through headphones from the voice of the owner in a micro-oral history of sorts.

4- Find ways to motivate and engage your visitors

Step 4 asks the designer to integrate multiple viewpoints, interactivity and invitation for the viewers to contribute. An interactive element I envision would be through a mic affixed to the wall beside the object. Before listening to the "micro-oral history" from the original owner, users would be invited to contribute one of their own. Each user would have a maximum of two minutes to answer the question, "Do you have a ring? What does yours mean to you?" Their meaning would be contrasted by the museums voice on the interpretive label and the owners voice they are about to play. Each new history would record over the other so museum goers never experience the same context twice.

5- Plan the "look and feel" of your exhibit

The objects would displayed on their own rather than in shared cases or stands in a sparse, free-standing, off-white pedestals. On the wall behind the pedestal would be large decal lettering (approximately 1.5' high) with the name of the object in black. There would also be projections of media referencing the object on the wall along with vinyl wallpaper that has different archival material (articles and other pictures) that piece together some of the context or play off the ideas presented in the museum interpretive text. Films where it has played a role projected on the wall. The idea would be to draw each object out and elevate the vernacular objects to museum like status. The other text and archival material would be supplementary and hopefully not overpower the objects.

Despite being in in a common room, there would be relatively dim lighting in the room as a whole with lighting spotlighting each object. The idea would be to create distinct spaces within the shared one where museum goers could experience each separate object.

6- Produce and install- Mock-up

(wish I could convey this better)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Carla's Wedding Ring- Post 4

During the commercial break of your sitcom, a commercial comes on showing a young couple strolling in the park by an older couple. After seeing the glistening diamond on her wedding band, DeBeers Jewelers reminds you that "a diamond lasts forever". You change the channel and witness Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly attempting to solve a supposed murder. A wedding band is separated from a woman and becomes the damning evidence in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film, Rear Window. When you turn off the television and put on the radio, you could possibly hear any one of the seventy-four recorded versions of a song named "Wedding Ring".

In contemporary American society, you'd be hard pressed to find an object imbued with as much moral heft, omnipresence and gravitas as a wedding band. Whether it be in song, theater, film, commercials, advertisements or literature, the wedding ring and its associations recur time and time again in our culture.

The ring worn on the finger has no clear origin and took on a variety of different forms and functions over centuries. It could be form of intellectual or religious rank, currency, a weapon, part of a magic or healing ritual, as a memorial and as a sign of love. Despite all of these uses over time, the engagement or wedding ring is the most popular form in our culture.

In "Rings For the Finger", George Frederick Kunz places the use of rings as part of a wedding ceremony or to signify love in a tradition closest to our contemporary usage in England around the time of the Reformation. Over time there has been a lot a variance in which finger or customs surrounded the ring according to region, time period and religion. It's now exchanged at a wedding ceremony and worn on the base of what's come to be known as the "ring finger" on right hand. Where it once was worn primary by females, the 1920's through 1940's gave rise to the double ring ceremonies for males and females. It was spurred in a large part by marketing of jewelers. It's covered ectensively by Vicki Howard in "A 'Real Man's Ring': Gender and the Invention of the Tradition" and is the practice Carla's ring is a product of.

Some people have come to choose not to wear it for utilitarian or ideological reasons whereas some share in Grace Kelly's characters stance that "the only way anybody could get that ring would be to chop off my finger." The meanings and customs of the ring and more specifically wedding rings are not at any sort of endpoint and part of a continuum, sure to evolve over time. As I typed, a friend posted this link to Facebook indicating a future where a ring may do so much more.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"Carla's Wedding Band"- Object History

Although the original provenance of Carla's wedding band is unknown, according to Carla it was purchased in "a popular jewelry store" in the Cherry Hill Mall in the summer of 2005. As of September of 2010, there were seventeen businesses classified by the "Jewelry" category on the Cherry Hill Mall's website. It was part of a pair where one went to Carla and the other to her husband.

The function and meaning of the object evolved over time paralleling the failed marriage that it signified. Originally it was purchased as a sign of commitment--a common use for the band. Carla added that part of its function was "to prove to herself that she was serious about the marriage". As their engagement progressed, Carla became hesitant about the marriage and tried to return the band but was told it was too late by the jeweler. She decided to go on with the marriage and the band was part of the contract she had entered into. It went through the process many bands went through when it "became blessed, exchanged, and placed on the appropriate fingers", a somewhat rote characterization of the tradition by Carla. After three years, Carla's reservations about the marriage became fully realized with Carla moving into a new house during the dissolution of the marriage. Along with the move to a new house, she described removing the band as "the final symbol of the failing marriage".

Having been in a friends wedding about two months ago, the disparity in meaning between the band I held at that wedding and the one I held at the Art Sanctuary was striking. The wedding band I held in the wedding in Lancaster was an object with a future ahead of it. The traditional symbolic value of commitment between two people and function as a centerpiece of the marital ceremony were ascribed to it. The only exceptions I've been around otherwise have memorialized a significant other or relative who is deceased. Carla's wedding band was the first ring I've been around where it's been presented to me in this particular context with Carla describing the box it's in as a "coffin".

Where she once tried to sell it to at least recoup its monetary value before the marriage, she hasn't sold it after. Although any guess I'd have as to what it could mean now would be purely speculative, it clearly has some value to Carla outside of the ways that I've traditionally encountered. The band itself is simple without any ornamentation, but it clearly carries complex meaning to Carla.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Object Description- "Carla's Wedding Band"

The object that I have is "Carla's Wedding Band." So far I have only seen a picture of it from one angle so am reduced to making inferences from the photo and comparing them to generalizations offered by other sources. Wedding bands (also known as rings) are circular pieces of metal varying widely in size, make, production and price worn to celebrate or identify the marriage of the wearer. They are produced to fit around the base of the ring finger of a human hand and sold in a variety of sizes that correspond to the circumference of the ring. National jewelry retailer Zales sells rings from 3 to 13.5 in size, which are equal to 14 to 22.6mm in circumference. Without a to scale photo, it is impossible to tell what the size is of this particular ring.

Wedding bands can be made from a variety of metals that partially determine the range in prices they are sold for. A survey of bands available on online auctioneer eBay includes bands made of gold, platinum, tungsten, stainless steel and titanium. Carla's band appears to be gold or gold plated.

Wedding bands are often produced or sold as matching sets. Carla indicated that this ring was one of a pair she characterized as "inexpensive and generic," meaning it may have been mass produced--as opposed to handcrafted--and may be identical to at least one other ring.

A variety of stones can be affixed to wedding rings. They can also be engraved with patterns or names. From the angle and small description provided by the owner, there doesn't appear to be any stone or engraving on this particular band. From the side photograph it appears uniform and absent of any ornamentation or stones, although a view from another angle could reveal otherwise.

The ring sits in a hinged container Carla calls its "coffin." It would appear to be somewhere between two to four inches in its height, width and depth and made of plastic or cardboard. The ring is nested in what appears to be velvet or a black fabric similar in appearance. There is a gold accent on the container.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Web Review: Railroads and the Making of Modern America

Railroads and the Making of Modern America
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed November 21-22, 2009

Railroads and the Making of Modern America is a site dedicated to exploring the railroad system and it's effects on a variety of facets of American society between 1850-1900. The project is directed by William G. Thomas, III, Professor in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where the project is based. It is intended to be a research tool for academic courses on 19th-century American History.

Content is presented a number of different ways on the front page. An 'Index of Topics' breaks into nine themes tackling railroads and their role in slavery, the Civil War, William Jennings Bryan's 1896 Presidential Campaign, migration and immigration and tourism. Depictions of railroads by artists, construction of the railroad system and the 1877 Railroad Strike are also among the themes covered.

Themes often have small written summaries supported by primary source material and augmented accompanying media of some variety. Each topic has a Geographic Information System (GIS) map, podcast, animated graph or movie to build on the scholarship provided. The site is at it's most dynamic in use of the media. There are animated maps of railroad expansion where visitors can watch the railroad lines snake accross the northeast and midwest of the country over decades in condensed time and podcasts featuring scholars discussing a given subject.

The 'Views' tab provides visitors with the option of browsing the subject matter by media type rather than topically. 'Documents' provides a database where the user can select the type of source material used they would like to access (ex. Annual Reports, Speeches, Pamphlets, etc.) It can be narrowed by topic, full-text search or date. The three other tabs provided on the front page relate to further exploration of the topics ouitside of the site itself. Resources provides a somewhat modest list of the technological or intellectual material drawn on for the project. There is also a link to a few graduate student web projects that cover some aspect of the social history of the railroad and a teaching materials tab for history teachers to integrate the site into lessons at the college, secondary and even elementary levels.

Although the consistency in formatting of themes leads to ease of use, it at times feels a little too much like a template that information was plugged into. The overall aesthetics of the site are simple but at times feel a little too bland. Even though the site is only a few years old (2006) for these reasons it feels like a bit of a relic. The maps created for the project certainly could be more dynamic and interactive.

It seems as though there was a lot of thought and work put into generating topics for presentation along with production of original charts and maps to great ends. They were also succesful in gathering material from a wide range of sources (National Archives and Records Administration, the Library of Congress, the Newberry Library, the University of Nebraksa, the Nebraska State Historical Society, the Library of Virginia, Yale University, and other institutions and personal private collections) to create an original work. Unfortunately the site only sometimes takes advantage of some of the dynamic multi-media capacities of the web to make the subject matter truly come alive.