Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh is a consortium of local museums, galleries and archives working together to share information and expertise, and foster collaboration in research, teaching, and public engagement.

Here, at the HAA Constellations blog, you can read about some of the outcomes of these partnerships. Learn more about Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh at https://haa.pitt.edu/ckp.

 

Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Robert Sterns, “Verona Has a ‘Handy’ Approach to Art: The Sociable Workshop,” The Pittsburgh Press, March 4, 1973: 12. Betty Raphael’s Scrapbooks, Contemporary Craft, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

     

    Organizing the community through art and crafts

    Author: Cyd Johnson

    Museum Studies Intern at Contemporary Craft - Fall 2017

    Before starting my internship at Contemporary Craft I first watched a documentary, Tracing Outlines, and was immediately enchanted with its founder, Betty Raphael. How could I have lived in Pittsburgh my whole life and not have known about this awesome woman who started a modern art gallery downtown in the 1940s? After watching the documentary on Outlines gallery, I was excited to learn that at my internship I would be flipping through her large leather-bound scrapbooks and learn about other, somehow even more inspiring projects.

    After Outlines Gallery closed in 1947, Betty Raphael got involved with the Riverview Community Action Corporation, a volunteer community service organization for the boroughs of Oakmont and Verona which provided used clothes to people in need, either giving the clothes away or selling them at bargain price, but needed storage rooms for all the clothes they were receiving. Raphael reached out to a small craft store in Verona that was preparing to shut its doors, called “the Store for arts and crafts and people-made things.”  She agreed to continue selling the works of local craftsmen in the Store if they could also use the space as storage for the clothing.  

    Shortly thereafter, a project grew out of the Store called the “Sociable Workshop.” The Store’s original director, Beth Cameron Walter, described it as a place “where professional artists and designers work with students, hobbyists, retirees and handicapped people in a non-profit program for the hand arts." They paid unemployed people to come to the workshop and take classes with professional designers and craftspeople. The objects made in the Sociable Workshop were sold in the Store, and two-thirds of the profits were given to their makers, while the other third went towards other community projects such as a bus that ran between the boroughs and helped transport people to/from the Workshop. (A bus system which, by the way, is still in place today).  

    The Sociable Workshop grew into a master-apprentice program, attracting nationally known craftspeople to come in and create easily reproducible designs for people with some technical skills, but who lacked creative ingenuity. The objects produced in the workshop began being noticed by retailers, first with a line of Santa Clauses sold in several New York department stores (including a window display at Cartier), and handmade objects being sold at Gimbels, a local department store. After seeing the displays, Park Smith called Betty Raphael and asked her to produce 800-1500 pillows/month for his stores. This led to the expansion of the Sociable Workshop into a new space, and the employment of nine weavers, four finishers, a manager and two assistants. Despite Betty Raphael pouring her own money into it, the Sociable Workshop was always in debt. While they received some federal funding as an anti-poverty program, it was never enough. Raphael, with the help of the Riverview Community Action Corporation, decided that they had enough support within the community to fund-raise this and other community outreach projects. They hosted a Bootstraps Twin-Boroughs party to fundraise. Objects from the Store were sold at the fundraiser, and all the volunteer groups put their best foot forward in attempts to raise the money the government refused to give them. In the words of Betty Raphael herself, "Who can say how far a community or city neighborhood could go today toward 'taking care of its own' if the government would help rather than hinder their efforts?" 

    In scouring these news articles and advertisements beautifully arranged in her aging and delicate scrapbooks, a single quote from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette art critic, Donald Miller, properly summarized my findings: "No one has ever worked harder or more cleverly to promote crafts in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania than Betty Raphael. She deserves more success."  This got me thinking -if Betty Raphael couldn’t sustain this project, can anyone? And, are there any arts organizations, today, that are actively thinking about community outreach in such a powerful way? I figured talking with my co-workers at Contemporary Craft would be a good place to start, since it is Betty Raphael’s remaining legacy.

    The outreach coordinator informed me of programs they do a few times a year, as well as many connections they have in education with schools and museums. Contemporary Craft maintains their status as a non-profit, offering a free gallery space and  programs that work in schools and with the women’s shelter in Pittsburgh. I understand that Betty Raphael struggled to secure funding in the 1970s, and I can’t imagine that getting government funding for a project of the magnitude of the Sociable Workshop would be any easier in 2017…

    Is it still possible? I am now determined to find out. 

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    The front of Benjamin Franklin House. It is a Georgian period exterior (from the 1730s). The house is Grade I listed, the same as Buckingham Palace, meaning that nothing can be changed on the interior or exterior of it.

     

    Digging Up Bones and Revolutionary History at the Benjamin Franklin House

    Author: Darcy Foster

    Summer Study Abroad scholarship 2017 - Women’s International Club Scholarship (London, England)

    Few people know that Benjamin Franklin lived in London for nearly 20 years before the American Revolution. My good fortune was to intern for six weeks at the lodger house in central London where he lived. The Benjamin Franklin House is the world's only remaining Franklin residence and was converted into a museum, in 2006, on the 300th anniversary of his birth.

    Being a relatively small museum with only four staff members including the director, I was given a wider range of work experiences than is possible at a larger site. The house itself was the artifact; the staff created an actress-led tour to help visitors imagine how the rooms were used. This tour consisted of interactive projections with the actress tour guide and audio recordings that included excerpts from some of Franklin’s letters. 

    My role was selling tickets and introducing the tour to visitors by discussing the history of the house and Benjamin Franklin’s role as a lobbyist in London in the 1750s-1770s. I also helped with education days for nearby schools and researched school outreach programs. In conducting research for these programs, I was able to illuminate Ben Franklin’s role in the politics at the time of the revolution, noting his activities with Boston Tea Party by searching through an online archive of his letters, managed by Yale University.

    The House’s social media presence is already pretty strong, but they needed help programming tweets for the future. So, thinking of ways that their social media could reach a wider audience, I started using the hashtag #MuseumMondays. Now some of their tweets are linked to other museums, giving the House the opportunity for more exposure.

    This internship culminated in an article I wrote for the newsletter discussing a discovery around the anatomist Thomas Hewson, who lived in the house with Franklin (Hewson had married the landlady’s daughter). Museum staff discovered that Hewson ran an anatomy school out of the house, when they were digging a hole to check the foundation and found hundreds of human and animal bones buried in what would have been the garden at that time. The bones were excavated and dated back to the late 1700s when Franklin lived at the house. Staff believe that Hewson had buried the bones in the garden to avoid raising suspicion as he was probably illegally obtaining his cadavers from grave robbers. In the article I wrote about the anatomy school itself and how it changed hands throughout the years. The anatomists running the facility would often catch diseases from the cadavers, and pass away. 

    This internship abroad was a phenomenal experience. Working with native Londoners was a rich cultural experience, and working in a small museum exposed me to the full spectrum of museum services.  As a result, I hope to pursue a career as a curator, and seeing how a small museum like the Benjamin Franklin House operates will be extremely beneficial in the future. 

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Portrait of Stan Brakhage in Sally Dixon’s home, c. 1975. Photograph: Robert Haller

     

    The Art of Seeing: Microcinema Series Recovers Pittsburgh’s Vital Film Heritage

    Author: Ben Ogrodnik

    As the 2017-2018 Mellon Fellow in Curation and Education, one of my greatest joys has been learning more about local arts organizations and being able to spotlight the city’s art history for the general public. As a PhD student focused on films made in and about Pittsburgh, I am especially interested in how filmmakers and local institutions work together to make a vibrant, original contribution to film art.

    The Andy Warhol Museum, for example, boasts an impressive, state-of-the-art mediatheque. Audiences can see Warhol’s ‘underground’ films (after being inaccessible for decades) and episodes of his TV show starring movie stars, musicians, and fashion icons. Another institution with a connection to film is the Society for Contemporary Craft, whose founder Betty Raphael, was a champion and advocate of scrappy independent filmmaking. Raphael was a close friend with Maya Deren, a modern dancer and artist. Raphael allowed Deren to use her parents Swissvale/Edgewood home as a movie set for her film Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946). Between 1970 and 2003, the Carnegie Museum of Art was a bastion of film-as-art. The Museum brought in visiting artists such as Werner Herzog, Jean-Luc Godard and Yvonne Rainer for in-person presentations, screenings and festivals. Over the course of 30 years, 200 internationally recognized artists came to Pittsburgh and galvanized excitement in film production.

    Many places have a connection to film if you look hard enough. One of our greatest institutions is Pittsburgh Filmmakers. This fall, I have been organizing a microcinema series that commemorates the rich legacy of this media arts organization. In the 1970s, Pittsburgh Filmmakers was founded by a group of poets, hippies, and visual artists as an artist-run equipment center. They intended to democratize access to costly equipment, and establish a free space for the exchange of ideas and creativity. Over the decades it has evolved into a world-class school for photography and visual media. This microcinema series highlights avant-garde filmmaking in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, with an appreciation of how this catalyst organization continues to support artists of various genres and backgrounds.

    The first event, “Seeing with Experimental Eyes” on Wednesday October 18 2017, I have co-organized with Lauren Goshinski, and with financial support from History of Art and Film Studies at Pitt. We are screening one of the most influential--and controversial-- works of the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Trilogy. In September 1970, the prolific artist Stan Brakhage visited the city. When he was in town the film curator Sally Dixon helped him get inside the West Penn hospital, the city morgue, and the Hill District police. As a result, he made a trio of documentary films about each of these “forbidden” places (eyes; Deus Ex; and The Act of Seeing with one’s own eyes, all finished in 1971). The Trilogy is today better known outside the city, being very rare and difficult to show.

    With this collaborative event, both Brakhage and Pittsburgh Filmmakers will be commemorated. Robert Haller, the then-executive director of PF, facilitated workshops and filmmaking activity on the part of Brakhage. Brakhage’s 1970 visit inspired a new generation of local artists and PF members, including Brady Lewis, Greg Gans, Sharon Green, and others who felt empowered to pick up a camera and try their hand at film.

    Pittsburgh Filmmakers is also one of the few places where people can still see 16mm film. Thanks to their commitment to analog film media and projection equipment, the Trilogy is being shown as originally intended, on celluloid film, for free. The Trilogy depicts the Steel City in a truly extraordinary way. Brakhage believed that the “Visual” was the primary, most essential element of film. He edited and recorded images in such a way that the spectator feels like a child viewing the world, with new eyes. He gives a hard look at life and death; after making the exceptionally demanding Trilogy, he would never be the same again. A post-screening roundtable of experts, artists and curators will discuss the films, considering their technical design and impact on the community.

    The microcinema series emblematizes the work that I love doing as a Mellon Fellow — recovering the arts heritage of the city, and spurring more interest and enthusiasm in the vast institutional resources here. I hope to see you at the first event!

    Click here for more details.

    Categories: 
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Joe's first U.S. Steel appearance

     

    The Steel Man Reaches Out Across Time

    Author: Evan Chen - Consuming Nature Workshop

    As someone who is interested in how certain historical knowledges or narratives fail to reach us in the present moment, during the week of the workshop I found myself arrested by the apparition of Joe Magarac, a Pittsburgh folk figure who could be located and seen all over our local archives. As someone who first moved to the city in the fall of 2007, I find it painful to imagine how much local history and culture has been erased or papered over by the waves of gentrification and “urban renewal” that began around that time. I am also interested in what these histories might have to tell us about the present. Pulled back from the margins of visibility or legibility, what can we glean from the fragments that remain?

    For me, the Joe Magarac folktale belonged to such a set of remaindered historical fragments. His story first appeared in an article written by Owen Francis which was published by Scribner’s in November of 1931. Francis hears about Magarac -magarac (a word that approximately means “jackass” in Hungarian- from “one of the many Slavs” working in a Monongahela Valley steel mill, leading to the story being recounted. Francis’s storytelling approach feels anthropological in a bad way. He describes the story as “typical of the Hunkie” as if he is the white steward of Russian and East European knowledge. It does not help that the narrative is written in clunky, transliterated dialect. But the rough contours of the folktale as it will circulate elsewhere are also laid out here: Steve Mestrovich’s beautiful daughter Mary is set to marry. He holds a feat of strength contest in order to draw interest to her and determine who is best to help carry on the family line. Pete, the local favorite, competes well, but eventually the inhumanly large Joe Magarac has to show up to serve as his ringer (Joe is not interested in Mary and claims that his work is too important for him to pay attention to a woman at home). Joe goes to work in the mills and eventually melts himself into steel in order to literally become part of future mills that will succeed and survive due to his supernatural strength. (1)

    Since then, Magarac’s appearance and disappearance in the name of steel has circulated in a number of different contexts. During the Consuming Nature workshop, we encountered many of these, including at least two comic books published by U. S. Steel in the 1950s, where Joe appears to a pubescent boy in a queer fever dream to educate him about...steel. [See images 1 and 2 above] (2)

    Magarac was also a visible fixture within shared and public spaces in Pittsburgh across the 20th century. A photograph located within Pitt’s Historic Pittsburgh collection shows one portal of the now defunct Manchester Bridge, circa 1918, featuring Magarac on one end and another folk figure, the coal miner Jan Volkanik, on the other. When we visited the archive at Rivers of Steel in Homestead, we saw Frank Vittor’s 1951 mock-up of a fountain for Point State Park that was centered on Joe’s muscular vitality. There also used to be a statue of Joe as part of “the Olde Kennywood Railroad Ride” in Kennywood Park. [See images 3, 4 and 5 above] (3)

    Beyond the above, the text that first and foremost drew my attention in his direction was Joe Magarac and His U.S.A. Citizen Papers, was written by Irwin Shapiro, illustrated by James Daugherty and published by Julian Messner in 1948. In this instance of the story, Joe is still an ambiguously nonhuman or superhuman “immigrant,” but there follows a surprising twist. Towards the middle of the narrative, Magarac is melted and shaped into a steel girder, and then he is shipped to Washington D.C., where he becomes a constituent part of the Capitol Building. Once installed, he overhears a congressman and a senator engaged in a xenophobic conversation about the threat of Slavic immigrants to the United States’ sovereignty and well-being. Enraged by their ignorance and lack of respect for these working people, Magarac gets so hot that he melts out of the building, destroying part of it. When he re-solidifies, he is a man again, and he goes to war with all of Washington D.C.  This builds to a climax where the president has to offer Joe his citizenship to get him to back off and to agree not to destroy the whole capitol. [See images 6, 7, 8 and 9 above] (4)

    Given current events, I was amazed to encounter this 70-year-old text that felt so relevant to the xenophobic strains that remain in contemporary America. As a Chinese American whose grandfather immigrated to this country within a few years of ...and His U.S.A. Citizen Papers’ publication, a time when racist immigration quotas dictated the racial makeup of this country, that text seized me in a way others did not. I think I was also seized by the text’s other naked, avowed political sensibilities—it is clear from reading it that Irwin Shapiro was an unapologetic advocate for labor and immigration at a time when such sympathies could have cost him mightily.

    One might wonder what all of the above has to do with human extinction and the anthropocene, the stated theme of Consuming Nature. I would argue that all of this is relevant in relation to concepts of genealogy and transmission that are important to thinking about history more generally. For example: since the initial written record about Magarac was written by Francis, more than one scholar has raised the question of whether his narrative is fakelore, something made up by the workers he was interviewing to get one over on him, or perhaps made up by Francis so he might have something new to report on. In this vein, Ivan Kovačević has worked through a whole body of literature that speculates about the Slavic linguistic origins of the surname to determine whether Francis’s story is authentic. (5)

    I would argue that regardless of or even in concert with such concerns one can still appreciate how Francis’s narrative spun in multiple, unpredictable directions through the various iterations one can still see today. Seeing is contingent, however, on knowing where and how to look, and on someone having left and preserved something for you to see. In the case of Shapiro’s Magarac book and the various Magarac statues that used to be visible around Pittsburgh, I wonder if an ethic of the anthropocene might hinge on finding ways to constantly remember and call up the past in as much of its heterogeneity as possible. Perhaps we could read as allegory how Joe Magarac melts himself into a material trace of his labor, a labor that can be read and understood by future generations only if they are open to gleaning his story from the fragments of the past. If the horror of the anthropocene comes out of its erasure of tradition and its dissolution of human history all at once, perhaps we had better get to remembering in as much detail as we can while we still can.

    (1) Francis, Owen. “The Sage of Joe Magarac: Steelman.” Scribner’s, Nov. 1931, pp. 505-511.

    (2) These two delightful and propagandistic comics, Joe the Genie of Steel and The Return of Joe the Genie of Steel, can be viewed at Hillman Library Special Collections on Pitt’s campus. Special thanks are due to the University Library System’s Clare Withers, who shared these materials with participants and also guided my hand towards other relevant Magarac materials.

    (3) For sources and additional context, see: 

    http://www.historicpittsburgh.org/islandora/object/pitt%3A715.185399.CP

    http://vannevar.blogspot.com/2013/04/joe-magarac-fountain-point-state-park.html

    http://pghmurals.com/Joe-Magarac-367.cfm

    (4) The text has also recently been reprinted by our own University of Pittsburgh Press.

    (5) Kovačević, Ivan. “Who Murdered Joe Magarac?” Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore, no. 59, 2014, pp. 85-104.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

     

    Categories: 
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Life Magazine, 1950

     

    Between Figuration and Abstraction: Rediscovering Stephen Greene

    Author: Alan London

    PHD Student, HAA

    I spent time this past summer researching some mostly forgotten twentieth century American painters who negotiated, in assorted individual ways, the treacherous mid-century intersections of figuration and abstraction. One of the most interesting of them is Stephen Greene (1917-1999) who, after an extended crisis of artistic confidence, was inspired by a 1958 series of six lectures by Clement Greenberg to change, abruptly, his painting style from Renaissance-inspired realism to a kind of refashioned color-field approach.  

    What luck for me to discover that the best before-and-after illustration of Greene’s turnabout is right here at the Carnegie Museum of Art, which owns an excellent example of each of Greene’s two major periods, Mourning (Five Figures with Candles) (oil on canvas, 1947) and Violet Light (oil on canvas, 1969). And what a boon to have the cooperation of Elizabeth Tufts Brown, CMOA Associate Registrar, and Hannah Turpin, Curatorial Assistant for Photography and Modern and Contemporary Art, in arranging for me to see these two paintings.

    Stephen Greene’s work is virtually unknown today, and most museums that own his paintings, including the CMOA, do not have them on display. But it was not always so. In the March 20, 1950, issue of Life, Greene was featured as one of the magazine’s nineteen best artists in the United States under the age of 36. And seven months later, in its October 23, 1950, issue, Life gave Greene his own two-page spread, citing him as a highly successful painter whose work was bought up quickly by important museums and collectors. The CMOA picture, Mourning, while not reproduced in the article, is clearly in the same formal and emotional mode as his works about Holocaust themes that Life did reproduce, with the same dry, chalky tonality and the same bald, manikin-like figures, sharing space and sorrow but not communicating. Indeed, several of the figures in Mourning are variations on the candle-holding mourner in The Burial.

    It’s rare to find examples of Greene’s figural work on the market, but there are plenty of opportunities to see his abstract paintings. In 2016, the Jason McCoy Gallery in New York had an exhibition of Greene’s large abstract paintings from the 1960s, curated by the artist’s daughter, Alison de Lima Greene, the Chief Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Although the color worlds of the paintings in the 2016 exhibition are different from that of the CMOA’s example of Greene’s abstract work, Violet Light, the general formal impression the viewer gets is similar. As Ms. de Lima Greene explained in an exhibition presentation accessible at the above website: “As gesture and hue gained in importance, [Greene] brought a new quality of light to his paintings, working through subtle layers of oil washes, and bringing a quiet drama to his nuanced orchestrations of primary and secondary colors. At the same time, he allowed certain shapes to resonate, and fragments of ladders, props, and the human anatomy persist like latent memories.”  In my encounter with the later Greene picture in the CMOA collection, I see a boomerang (or a wishbone), a disposable razor, and maybe a kidney, all disbursed among the soft mauves and greys and brighter orange flashes of Violet Light.

    If I consider Stephen Greene as a case study in my dissertation, one theme through which his work could be explored could be that proposed by Michael Fried (who in the 1950s was Greene’s student at Princeton, as was Frank Stella) in a May, 1963, Arts Magazine article titled The Goals of Stephen Greene. “The crucial problem raised by Stephen Greene’s work is this: can a painter today make paintings which are meant to express a particular mood or attitude toward reality and which yet manage to satisfy the imperious and rather restricting demands of a sensibility trained on the abstract painting of the past twenty-five years?”

    This remains an important question for the history of midcentury American art. The museum records that Elizabeth and Hannah were kind enough to share with me suggest that Mourning was a museum purchase in 1982 using the A. W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund and that Violet Light was donated to the museum in 1983 by the art dealer from whom Mourning had been purchased.  There appears to be no record of either painting ever being exhibited in the Museum’s galleries, a fascinating reflection of Greene’s own position within the shifting sensibilities of American painting during and since the 1950s.

    Categories: 
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  •  

    Summer Internship at the Kluge-Rhue

    Author: Imani Williford

    Summer Curatorial Research Project in Indigenous Arts at the University of Virginia

    As a part of The Leadership Alliance’s Undergraduate Summer Research program, I had the opportunity to participate in the Mellon Indigenous Arts Initiative Internship Program for eight weeks in order to study Indigenous art and increase my curatorial experience. Under the tutelage of Dr. Henry Skerritt, curator of the Kluge-Rhue Aboriginal Art Collection and Dr. Adriana Greci Green, Curator of the Indigenous Arts of the Americas at the Fralin Museum of Art at University of Virginia, me and four other students curated a full scale exhibition of Aboriginal Art at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia.

    I worked with four out of the 26 pieces that the Kluge-Ruhe had recently acquired as a gift from Stephen and Agatha Luczo. Despite having no experience with Aboriginal Art, my prior knowledge from HAA courses and undergraduate research, made me well aware of the history of how museums and the disciple of History of Art treat’s Art by marginalized groups. The three main questions guiding my curatorial process were: What is Aboriginal Art? How do I approach it? And what did I want my audience to learn? The answers to my questions came after six weeks of research.

    I determined that Aboriginal Art is a presence of each artist’s respective homeland and their active engagement with memories of sites they left behind. While my approach was to rooted in the idea that despite displacement, colonization and the western hierarchy of art, Aboriginal Art should be approached as being active in time, by understanding and paying attention to the artistic technique and subject matter of the artists and Art. After grasping my understanding and approach to Aboriginal Art, I wanted my audience to learn that Aboriginal art is not a record of the past but a living expression that constantly participates with time by upholding and utilizing the power of experience from of time.

    Over the course of the program I was able to answer these questions through: conducting independent research, collaborating with my fellow undergraduate colleagues to create panels, labels, and titles and mock exhibitions, conducting field work by taking field trips to Virginia area museums, giving tours and talks to visitors and contributing an essay based on the artists and works that I studied over the course of the program which was included in a published exhibition catalog. Additionally, before the opening of the exhibit, some of my colleagues and I were interviewed by Australian Broadcasting Company’s Brooke Wylie, to talk about the works in the exhibit and our experience as curators. After six and a half weeks of preparation the exhibition, Song’s Of A Secret Country, opened at the Kluge-Ruhe.

    The program fully concluded about a week after our exhibition with The Leadership Alliance’s annual summer undergraduate research conference in Harford, Connecticut, at the Connecticut Convention Center. At the conference my colleagues and I individually presented our findings and curatorial process to fellow undergraduate researchers, professors, mentors, Leadership Alliance alumni, and faculty of participating Leadership Alliance schools. Overall the experience of curating an exhibition and presenting at a conference provided a deeply rewarding experience that has broadened and bolstered my future plans for continuing my studies in the History of Art.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    An ancient camel’s nametag and a small knife, both forged from meteorites. (National Museum of Natural History)

     

    Summer at the Smithsonian: Adventure Behind (Almost) Every Door

    Author: Natalie Gomez

    Intern and Docent Programs Intern at the National Portrait Gallery

    They told me I was the Intern and Docent Programs intern, so I cracked my knuckles with a sigh on my first day as I sat at the computer, ready to answer emails nonstop for the next eight weeks.  It would soon dawn on me that it was those very emails that would allow me to taste any and every part of life at the Smithsonian I desired.

    I published my own blog post and helped kick start an interview series on the National Portrait Gallery website, met with world-renowned geologists and rare book librarians to learn about (and even touch!) their work, received personal tours from nationally revered curators at the National Portrait Gallery, crept through the secret and dusty back hallways of the National Museum of Natural History, and all because I asked. The Smithsonian is a place of wonder, of curiosity, and of great (if not infinite) knowledge, all shrouded by a visitor-imposed sense of mystery and foreboding. My time with the Smithsonian led me to realize that the promise and mission upon which we were founded, “the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” makes our vast collections and almost inconceivable collective knowledge accessible to those who have the courage to seek it.

    Though I was given permission to create projects with any of our staff at the National Portrait Gallery (an extremely historic building that itself merits a blog post), I was assigned two main tasks for the summer. My first task was to edit and reinvent the Docent Manual. It acts as a guide for each incoming volunteer tour giver (a surprisingly prestigious and competitive position, filled with everyone from art teachers to engineers to former covert government agents). My second and perhaps most important task was to create a sense of community between interns and plan programs for us to attend. This ranged from deciding on (or organizing) lectures by professionals across the Smithsonian to planning sightseeing tours in the Capitol or lunch at the National Museum of the American Indian’s award-winning cafeteria. Almost every day of each week held plans for exciting, Smithsonian-unique experiences, all no more than a metro stop or a fifteen-minute walk away.

    Though the “fieldtrips” were frequent and extensive, the Smithsonian encouraged staff to remember who we were: young adults itching to be invited into any and every locked laboratory and Staff Only entrance to see that which we once thought unseeable. And the invitations were there, some hidden a bit more obscurely than others. Whether it took researching museum calendars or twenty minutes of deep breathing before writing an email to a complete stranger for permission to shadow them, the Smithsonian left no question unanswered and no query within reason unfulfilled. Though some of the world’s brightest, wisest, and most published have offices behind our locked doors, those doors will open with enthusiasm and graciousness for inquisitive minds who have a bit of courage, a bunch of persistence, and a big interest in increasing (and diffusing) knowledge of their own.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Scientists at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History offer their interpretations on the relationships and dynamics between people and museum collections. The scientists shown in the images are not the same people referenced in the text.

     

    Natural History, the Anthropocene, and Crisis

    Author: Mitchell Kiefer - Consuming Nature Workshop

    During our Consuming Nature workshop, we discussed at various times the shift that the Anthropocene represents in our thinking. My own project is an analysis of the changing narratives within natural history museums, understanding the focus on ideas such as the Anthropocene as not only scientific statements about the world, but political and cultural arrangements. The emergent popularity of the Anthropocene – epitomized, perhaps, by its inclusion in a major institution such as Carnegie – suggests a particular understanding of the relationship between nature and culture. Just as ‘modernity’ may best be understood as a collective mindset of advancement rather than a realist description of social processes, the Anthropocene may be best understood as a collective understanding of nature-culture, reflective of unique and contingent social forces. What, though, are the social conditions that are reflected in this idea? This is too large a question to answer in a blog post. Instead of trying, I’ll suggest a few insights from specific examples of the Anthropocene in natural history museums.

    A crisis consciousness? If people only act in times of crisis, and the impacts of climate change are slow onset, the Anthropocene may represent a way of matching scale. By situating the pace of climate change in geologic eras, the changes look quite rapid, indeed, and may become more easily perceived as a looming crisis.

    Natural history museums such as Carnegie are institutions that wield cultural authority, and shape the ways people understand the natural world. Along with a new narrative of the Anthropocene, museums are also adopting new roles. One scientist with an administrative role at Carnegie told me the museum is now outward looking, drawing inspiration from the public and current social issues in shaping displays, exhibits, and programs. This represents a more general trend that speaks to the development of Anthropocene narratives. People in charge of these institutions recognize a relationship between people and science that may be new to major natural history museums. Another scientist with a similar administrative role suggested that Carnegie is acknowledging its role in delivering scientific information to the public in the context of people losing faith in and questioning science.

    To reconnect science and people, Carnegie is becoming more reflexive in how it displays and communicates information. The work of human scientists is proudly displayed, as is the work in constructing dioramas. More information is given on the processes of producing exhibits, and displays are incorporating more interaction between nature out there and people.

    What does this mean for communicating the Anthropocene and the possibility of a crisis consciousness? The new ways of displaying and the new content in displays does something different than suggest a new geologic era imposed by humans (though this, too, is suggested). What the Carnegie museum is doing is more reflective of the Anthropocene as a new way of understanding the relationship between nature and culture. Carnegie shows that yes, in fact, people have relationships with nature in ways that influence each other. Whether this change in narrative was born by some internal realization within scientific disciplines, a need for struggling museums to find funding, some other reason, or a combination of dynamics is a bigger question to be asked.

    I do want to suggest, though, that a narrative that re-connects people and nature, as well as people and science, seems to reflect the scientific community’s perceived need for people to 1) acknowledge the possibility and extent of human-induced ecological, geological, and biological changes, and 2) interpret that as crisis.  This is carried out in museums like Carnegie given the realization that museums can be more than holders of artifacts and drivers of scientific inquiry. They can direct public understandings, both scientific and cultural.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    Smog meringues at the GASP Air Fair

    Author: Shelby Brewster - Consuming Nature Workshop

    Fortunately, the weather on Tuesday, August 8, was sunny and clear, if a bit breezy. With egg whites and whisk in tow, Ana Rodríguez Castillo and I headed to the McConway & Torley Steel Foundry on 48th Street in Lawrenceville. Railroad tracks cross the entrance to the facility, marking the border between their property and the city street. I stood just outside the facility, wary of the security guard in his small hut monitoring those entering and exiting the property. Whipping up the egg whites here took approximately half an hour; Ana graciously documented the process with her camera. While we caught some curious looks from the workmen around the facility, we continued largely unbothered.

    At around 11:45, a group of five or six men congregated outside the security hut. As they were wearing khakis and polo shirts, rather than the jeans and work boots I’d seen on other workers, I assumed they were management. They headed out of the compound toward Butler Street (I believe they were going to lunch). As they passed by me, still whisking, most of them simply stared. One man, however, walked right up to me and stuck his face near the bowl of stiffening egg whites. He asked me what I was doing. I replied that I was making meringues as a performance project, and that because they are very light, I would capture whatever was in the air where I was standing. He looked at me, then around at the plant matter covering the ground near the railroad tracks, back at me, and replied, “Like pollen!” Not wanting to jeopardize the completion of the meringue, I answered, “Sure! And whatever else is here!” and carried on whisking. He and his associates laughed and continued on.

    After the McConway & Torley egg whites reached desired stiffness, Ana and I headed to the bus stop on Centre Avenue and Negley Avenue, a high traffic area. Luckily for us, a road construction crew was busy working on Centre; they had cut out a large portion of the asphalt and were using a backhoe and other construction vehicles to complete some work. I was excited for the potential of even more pollutants to make their way into these meringues.

    Being so near a bus stop, there were many more witnesses to these meringues. Many people getting on and off the bus gave me strange looks, though few asked me what I was doing. A pair of workmen in a moving truck hollered at me and asked about the whisk (I told them they could taste the meringues at the Air Fair). One woman getting off the 71 loudly encouraged me to keep whisking. A man with a video camera who was sharing the corner with me cautioned that if I kept beating the egg whites they would turn stiff (I replied that, as I was making meringues, that was precisely the point). We returned to my kitchen, polluted egg whites in tow, and I piped the meringues onto baking sheets. I also whipped up an “unpolluted” batch inside, to serve as a sort of control group. Visibly, I couldn’t tell a difference between the meringues, but I was eager to hear responses from visitors to the Air Fair.

    GASP hosted the Air Fair on Thursday, August 10, at Assemble community art space in East Liberty. In addition to the art exhibit GASP had built, a number of environmental organizations had tables to talk to visitors about their work on air pollution issues. I set up my own table among the other, displaying three silver trays with the three varieties of meringue I had made. Responses were quite varied, but most people who attended the event tried at least one of the meringues. Several people decided to conduct their own blind taste test, to see if they could identify which meringues were the “polluted” ones. The overall consensus seemed to be that the McConway & Torley confections tasted grittier or dirtier than either the bus stop or kitchen meringues. Some people were concerned about tasting the polluted versions, and I replied by asking if they were concerned about walking down Penn Avenue and breathing in that car exhaust. Some people didn’t know there was a steel foundry in Lawrenceville, like me before I started this project. Many visitors were also unaware of GASP’s history of baking, which I was more than happy to relate to them. Overall, attending the Air Fair with the meringues demonstrated the potential for taste experiences to reveal or unsettle expectations about invisible environmental pollutants. I plan to continue exploring how culinary experiences might be commandeered for an activist purpose.

    Find out more about the inspiration behind this event here

     

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    The Andy Warhol Museum: The Legacy of an Icon

    Author: Leslie Rose

    Milton Fine Museum Profession Fellowship, Summer 2017

    Recently, I have heard one of the truest statements that I will probably ever come to understand: “Once you’ve got The Warhol bug, you’ve got it for life.” This “bug” is much more than just an admiration for the iconic artist. It’s appreciation for all that he and his legacy, The Andy Warhol Museum, represents.

    Until my fellowship with The Warhol, I didn’t fully comprehend the importance of such an institution. I respected and enjoyed Warhol’s work as much as any other artist, but this museum is far more than a single artist museum. As the University of Pittsburgh’s Fine Foundation Fellow for the summer, I had the opportunity to work with the Warhol’s chief curator, Jose Diaz, and Milton Fine curator, Jessica Beck. My experiences in this internship opened my eyes to the necessity of The Andy Warhol Museum and institutions like it. In almost every possible way, from its programs and publications to its exhibitions and staff, The Warhol provides an inclusive environment and enriching content that generates a dialogue amongst the people of the Pittsburgh community and thousands of visitors from around the world. The museum brings together people from all walks of life, something that I believe people need in today’s divisive social and political atmosphere. It is not just me taking notice.

    One way The Andy Warhol Museum promotes inclusivity is through their staff. The Warhol received recognition by Ithaka S+R as one of eight institutions in the country striving to make the museum world more open to marginalized groups. I participated in Ithaka S+R’s research interviews and when learning of the other museum in that list, Brooklyn Museum, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Detroit Institute of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Spelman College Museum (Atlanta), and the Studio Museum in Harlem, I was elated that the Warhol ranked among them. It thrilled me that I was a part of an institution that made diversity a priority. As faces and voices of the institution, a diverse staff means numerous perspectives are being explored and welcomed.

    Through my fellowship, I was able to assist the curatorial team on their upcoming exhibitions. With each project, I learned more of what it truly means to carry on Warhol’s legacy. This legacy means more than finding artists who similarly practiced art, but it is Warhol’s mindset—critiquing and questioning today’s culture head on. The 2017 Spring show, Firelei Baez: Bloodlines featured the works of contemporary Dominican artist Firelei Baez, who’s work tackled past and present understandings of race, power and beauty. In the fall of this year, The Warhol will open Farhad Moshiri: Go West, which will showcase the works of Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri. Throughout my internship, my primary focus was Go West and I helped to create an exhibition catalogue and didactic wall labels. Moshiri’s work explores Iranian traditions, the appeal and influence of Western culture, and how people have come to define their own cultural identities. In the wake of recent, caustic, political rhetoric, aimed to make people’s differences seem like dangers, the museum finds that Moshiri’s work highlights the commonalities between the East and West. Addressing complex current issues of identity, race, power, The Warhol aims to bridge gaps, acknowledge, and celebrate people’s differences through exhibitions and events such as these.

    My time at The Andy Warhol Museum has taught me more than I can imagine— Andy Warhol’s life and work, working with contemporary artists, planning an exhibition, and how a museum of this size operates on a day to day basis. It was the museum’s mission, continuing Warhol’s legacy and making it accessible to all people, that has made the greatest impact on me and is something that I will carry with me.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

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