Saturday, November 29, 2014

Objects + Emotions

The recently concluded NEMA (New England Museum Association) Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts was BIG.

Over 1200 attendees jammed the sessions and hallways of the conference hotel.  I'm sure the promise of Cambridge (and Boston) drew many of those conference goers (as a comparison, the recent ASTC national Conference drew around 1700 people) but over 1200 attendees for a regional conference is fantastic!

Part of this has to do with the incredibly strong work the staff of NEMA does all year long in putting together excellent programs for the NEMA membership. The Annual Conference is just the culmination of those efforts.

So what stood out for me this year in Cambridge?  I felt that many of the ideas in sessions (and in after-session conversations) revolved around the intersection of objects and emotions.  As a matter of fact, one of my favorite sessions from this year's conference was entitled "Objects & Emotion" and was presented by Linda Norris and Rainey Tisdale.  The presenters started off by emphasizing the important ways that emotion and memory are connected, and led session attendees through exercises with real objects and memories.

Along the way Rainey and Linda cited research by John Falk that points to the importance of emotional content for long-lasting memories of visitors' museum experiences (handouts from this and other conference sessions can be found on the NEMA website) as well as a great quote from a blog post by Alli Burness:

"I’m aware of missing out on stories, context and learning by disregarding interpretive text even when accessible to me in my own language. But by playing around with looking as I travel, I’m learning to see differently, rediscovering how my subjectivity and emotions can have a role in my museum experience.  When researching later, I’ve found the emotions I feel when looking are rarely at odds with the story or meaning these objects are widely accepted to have. In fact, the emotions join hands with the meaning and both ring out louder. I’ve felt more deeply connected to these objects. I wonder if museums design exhibitions to allow a valuable experience to be had if the labels are ignored or read?"

Lastly there was a shout-out during discussion about the Significant Objects project, itself a nimble intersection between object and emotion.

Many other sessions during the NEMA Conference could also be viewed through the object/emotion lens as well.

"Pop-Up Programming and Exhibits in the Community" touched on the wide range of programming (involving real objects) and the strong emotional chords that were struck by bringing experiences out of the museum and into non-traditional spots in local communities.  Presenters from The Providence Children's Museum, The Peabody Essex Museum, The Maria Mitchell Observatory, and The Vaughan Homestead Foundation shared their experiences.

In general every speaker emphasized that different forms of pop-up programming have existed over time, and that many, if not most, programs that head out into local communities are a result of "too much stuff and not enough staff."

In the end, especially for smaller or remote museums, a primary aim for pop-up programming is to "go where the people are" and connect (emotionally!) with folks through objects and stories in a way that will encourage a visit to the actual "bricks and mortar" museum bringing these programs to the public.

One sessions that was not directly about objects and emotions, but that definitely stirred strong feelings from session attendees was "The Graduate School Conundrum."

The session asked whether getting a graduate degree in Museum Studies (or similar programs) was "worth it."  It was clear that many recent graduates in the audience, along with job seekers struggling to find a spot in the museum profession, were very conflicted about that question.  There was a general concern about whether more and more graduate programs turning out more and more graduates for a relatively small number of museum jobs was ethical, let alone practical.

Lively interchange with the audience provoked comments such as: "getting a graduate degree for a museum job is a form of academic hazing" and a question of whether Museum Studies programs were a "Ponzi scheme" !   (You really had to be there to appreciate the strong emotions in that packed conference room!)   Of course nothing was definitively settled, but I'm still thinking about that session!

Lastly, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a session that I was involved in called "Pulling Back the Curtain: Sharing Exhibit Development Choices with Our Visitors."  My co-presenters Sari Boren, Kate Marciniec, and Christina Ferwerda dealt with an exhibit development question directly tied to the intersection between objects and emotions, namely, how much of our internal development process (the choice of objects, the selection of topics, the decisions about editorial points of view ...) should we share with visitors, and how?

We started the session discussing two recent art exhibitions, Cy Twombley's  "Treatise on the Veil" 
which very deliberately brought the viewer into the artist's process, and Kara Walker's "A Subtlety" which, I would argue, very deliberately kept many of the artist's goals and intentions opaque.

We broke out into small groups to discuss the possibilities of "Pulling Back The Curtain" in the context of four different exhibitions (in four different types of museum) Slavery in the context of a Historic House, Climate Change at a Science Museum, Introducing different communities in a Children's Museum, and Food-related cultural traditions in an Art Space.

While each exhibition/venue presented different challenges, one common thread that emerged was the importance of including real stories (and visitor stories, where possible) in the development process and in the final exhibition.  That was one way to break down the (perhaps artificial) wall between "Us" and "Them"  --- the museum and the audience.

And ultimately that feels like an ongoing personal takeaway from this year's NEMA Conference, as well as an on-going professional challenge --- how best to break down the barriers of traditional practice that prevent us from sharing the strong intersection between objects and emotions with the communities we are trying to best serve at our museums.

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

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And last, but not least, you can find out more about Paul Orselli and POW! at the main Paul Orselli Workshop website.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Time + Culture + Tech =

Here's a quick one, as I ponder my learnings from the recent NEMA Conference and before I write a post recapping that event, is a website now in beta that aims to present crowd-sourced music based on geographical location and decade.

As you can see by the photo at the top of the post, or by clicking over to the website, you can end up in some interesting combinations of sonic times and places!

But don't take my word for it, head over to and give it a listen!

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Moving Minds and Bodies: An Encore Interview with Christina Ferwerda

The New England Museum Association (NEMA) Conference will be taking place next week in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  In addition to POW! being one of this year's Conference Sponsors, I'm also really looking forward to being a session presenter.  Follow my Twitter feed (@museum_exhibits) for live updates from the conference!

I'll be part of a spirited session called " Pulling Back the Curtain: Sharing Exhibit Development Choices with Our Visitors" taking place from 8:45 – 10:15 am on Friday, November 21st.  I'm fortunate to be presenting alongside three exemplary museum professionals: Sari Boren, Kate Marciniec, and Christina Ferwerda.  Given that, I thought now would be an excellent time to post an "encore" version of the interview I did with Christina last year.  Enjoy!

Christina Ferwerda is an independent professional who bridges the worlds of museums, education, and movement. Her practice drawing from museum experiences, and moving (dance, yoga) has been an important part of her development as a teacher and a learner.  Working in Museum Education for over 10 years fueled Christina's desire to make varied cultural spaces more user-friendly for people of all ages, and led her to start working in Exhibition Development.  She currently works with partners in New York City (her home base) and North America as well as on projects abroad.

I was excited and pleased that Christina was able to provide this interview for ExhibiTricks!

What’s your educational background?  Well, I had a really hard time deciding what I wanted to do - I think as you grow up, there is a certain pressure to know what you want to "be" when you get older.  I started college as a journalism major, but found the field so cutthroat and competitive: it was a real turnoff. Therefore, my undergrad degree became a mishmash of a variety of fields - journalism, art history, studio art, and theater. I was surprised that Marquette University let me graduate! Now that I work on exhibit development, I can see how all of those fields fit together, but at the time I just wanted to finish, and felt like that combination of fields represented a path of some kind.

After I finished undergrad, I moved to Paris (by accident! I went for vacation and didn't return for 2 years). While there, I studied French history and culture at La Sorbonne. And when I moved to New York, all of these experiences came together with a graduate degree at Bank Street College of Education. It became clear that my skills could be used to create education programs and exhibits for everyone to enjoy.

What got you interested in Museums?  I grew up in a very small town in New Hampshire, and therefore museum-going didn't really figure into my young life - I spent most of my time finding bird feathers in the woods with my sister. However, in college I started to notice how much imagery and art helped me understand and express myself. When I went to Europe for the first time in 1998, I went to basically every museum I could find. And the true, transformative experience came when I found a late Picasso painting "The Matador and the Nude" (1970). I sat in front of that painting for about 2 hours, just thinking about the various shapes, lines, emotions and experiences that must have informed its making. After that, I was hooked. Today I go to tons of museums, as well as performances of various kinds.

Why Yoga AND Exhibits?  Great question - so many people ask me about that, and are curious about how I can make a living doing both.  So many of the experiences that museums provide center around providing a very concrete bit of information in a creative way - as institutions strive to help the public understand complex ideas and opinions. The goals of a regular yoga practice are very similar, however the ideas that are being communicated are often very philosophical and internal. What interests me is the intersection of the two - the very generalized idea and the personal embodiment. Making physical shapes that are connected to things we see and concepts we understand bring a more developed grasp of the information.

A very simple example that I use very often in teaching yoga is to cue my students to imagine that they are in a comic book, as Superman, and that their foot or hand is being accompanied by the word "POW" in the jagged text box. The visual informs a very physical and concrete movement and a sensation of energy in that part of the body, and the movement of the body brings a real visceral understanding of the image.

Tell us a little bit about how your “non-museum” skills/activities inform your exhibit design work?  I think the most important connection for my personal work is through yoga.  I really learned about having  a "practice" - coming back to the same ideas and goals, but constantly trying to explore and be inventive with them to find new and interesting approaches. Very often when I'm working on complex projects, I'll find a related movement goal and try to push the two forward together. This past winter, when we were working on the first children's museum in Bulgaria together,  I was struggling with language and the language barrier. Therefore, I chose a complex yoga pose that is highly connected to creativity and expression (the famed Scorpion pose). Of course, as you practice, you embody and think about those goals. I found a great method of communication that worked for the project and moved it forward.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out about the intersection between movement and museums.  Of course, there are quite a few resources online to learn about the latest in movement research and museums. However, I tend to try and go to as many things as I can in person - performances, exhibits, and especially performances or movement classes AT museums. The two fields are starting to intersect and overlap more and more, as the divide between performance and art becomes blurred into performance art. I also find it incredibly important to watch the way people travel and move within an exhibition - are they comfortable getting on the floor, or attaining a different view of an object, and is that posture available to them? I learn quite a bit that way.

I've recently been a bit disappointed in yoga classes that are offered in museums and cultural institutions - its such a rare opportunity to draw from the surroundings, and I haven't often found classes or teachers that make reference to the artwork or setting that surrounds them. I'm hoping to see a more conscientious connection between the two in years to come.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?  I'm a huge fan of Olafur Eliasson - I will go and find his exhibits whenever and wherever I can. His work has a really nice physical and visceral quality. I saw him speak, and he discussed striving for his work to have a "wow" moment, followed by an "aha" moment - one gets excited and hooked, but that curiosity fuels a revelation. That goal shines through his work and is something that I try to keep in mind when I'm thinking about yoga classes or museum experiences - that the experience should be physically and mentally exciting, and that the experience will feel more complete if there can be an educational realization tucked in there somewhre. I think the museum I've been to the most is MoMA, I like the way that sightlines and divisions of space create little "surprise" moments with art. To me it feels very personal, like I'm getting a special showing of the artwork. 

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects? Well, I'm about to head to New Orleans to install Moviehouse NOLA, a small social history and contemporary art exhibit. It's been a very challenging and rewarding process, building an exhibit about movie theater history there. I'm also continuing to work on a children's discovery room for the Florida Museum of Natural History and of course, continued work on Muzeiko, a children's museum in Bulgaria. They are all at different stages of development, so it definitely keeps me on my toes!

I'm also continuing to work on bringing movement to spaces infused with meaning - I just taught at a Zen monastery, and will be leading another retreat there in July. The movements are based on Zen philosophies and the life of the Buddha, and I'm working with an amazing co-teacher Kristen Mangione.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be? Ha, this changes every day for me! Recently, though, I've been thinking a lot about "the walking man" - a concept that Bill T. Jones used in exploring his last piece "A Rite."  Walking is so mundane, yet we rarely think about it. I'm sure there is some amazing research about culture, body language and walking . . . .

Thanks, Christina for sharing your thoughts and insights!  You can find out more about Christina Ferwerda and her work moving minds and bodies via her website or Twitter feed (@rationallunatic).

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Exhibit Design Inspiration: The Artwork of Kevin Van Aelst

There's always something appealing to me in people who create beautiful and interesting things from simple materials.  I guess that's one of the reasons I find artist Kevin Von Aelst's images so striking.

In Von Aelst's own words:  "My artwork is an attempt to reconcile my physical surroundings with the fears, fascinations, curiosities, and daydreams occupying my mind. The photographs and constructions consist of common artifacts, materials, and scenes from everyday life, which have been rearranged and reassembled into various forms, patterns, and illustrations. 

The images aim to examine the distance between where my mind wanders to and the material objects that inspire those fixations. Equally important to this work are the 'big picture' and the 'little things'--the mundane and relatable artifacts of our daily lives, and the more mysterious notions of life and existence. This work is about creating order where we expect to find randomness, and also hints that the minutiae all around us is capable of communicating much larger ideas."

I've included two images here, but really you should click on over to Kevin Von Aelst's website to appreciate the entire range of his work.

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)