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

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    On Greer Lankton, the Best Friend I’ve Never Met

    Author: Isaiah Bertagnolli, PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

     

    On the night before my last day working as a graduate fellow with the Greer Lankton Archive at the Mattress Factory, Greer came to me in a dream. She handed me a black shoebox. Inside of that shoebox was the doll she made of the drag queen Divine, star of Pink Flamingos, one of Greer’s favorite movies. I myself have never seen the movie, but remember the poster well from the video rental store my family used to frequent when I was a kid. As a six-year-old in Montana, I had no idea what drag was. But I remember thinking Divine was...ridiculous looking. This is the best gift I have ever been given, even if I’ll never have the doll in my possession. Thanks diva.

    To work during the summer of Covid was a challenge. It wasn’t until my final month as a fellow I could access the archive itself, and even then only twice a week and each for a short amount of time. For most of my fellowship I catalogued photographs remotely, and went through some of the materials from the archive which had been digitized. I could glean bits and pieces of her life, and I found her very sympathetic. But being in the archive was a profound experience, emotional rather than scholastic. I felt her with me most days, and I think of her as the closest friend I’ve never met.

    She was assigned male at birth to her parents, Bill and Lynn Lankton in 1958. She came out as gay at 14, suffered a psychotic break at 19, and began to transition shortly after. She underwent gender confirmation surgery, which her Presbyterian minister father got his Church’s board to cover under the church’s medical insurance. She went to Pratt Institute, and started making a name for herself in the East Village art scene of the 1980s. Peter Hujar shot an ad for her solo show at Civilian Warfare, which appeared on the back cover of ArtForum International. Her father officiated her wedding to Paul Monroe, and the event was photographed by her friends Joyce Randall and Nan Goldin.

    Greer struggled. A lot. She was bullied growing up for being effeminate, and bullied for being gay. She came to regret her gender confirmation surgery because she felt deeply unattractive and consequently unloveable. According to close friend Joyce Randall, Greer felt gay men didn’t want her and neither did straight men. She struggled with substance abuse, and went through rehab for heroin addiction after her divorce. According to medical records in the archive which quote Greer, she was subject to domestic abuse. She attempted suicide a number of times throughout her life, and she ultimately died of a cocaine overdose. But despite all this, one can feel the happiness that making dolls brought her. One can feel the love so many had for her in letters and photographs that the archive preserves. She may have felt alone, but there were people who loved and supported her, who wanted things to be better for her, to be easier for her, even well before she moved to New York.

    Greer played with dolls as a kid, and as anyone who had to play by themselves can tell you, that really exercises your imagination. That same sense of make believe is manifest in all of her dolls; they were actors in her fantasy world. An interview published in Cellar Door asked “Do you think of them [the dolls] as being real?” To which Greer replied “No, not really, I mean in a way I do. I talk to them. I know they are dolls. I miss them when they are not here, but I don’t feel lonely when they’re not around.”[2] Her dolls all have unique personalities indicated by their names, their sense of style, their appearances. For Greer, I came to suspect, dolls were her friends, and this was a question that I posed in an interview with her close friend David Newcomb. Newcomb said the dolls were the type of friends she wanted, the drag queens she never quite fit in with. Some of her dolls were autobiographical, but not all of them are self portraits. Her dolls are art, but to regard them solely as art minimizes the enormity of the world to which they belong.

    It is appropriate in a lot of ways that her installation at the Mattress Factory was a house. It’s a doll house. It’s a reconstruction of her apartment, but more succinctly it represents her world. It is full of the things she loved, and the things that brought her joy. The installation title “It’s All About Me, Not You” tells us as much. It’s a declaration that this installation is unequivocally Greer. But that’s not to say one cannot participate. Initially, visitors were allowed to enter the space, to see these little treasures up close. It seems that Greer Lankton wanted people to get to know her through her art, on her terms. She wanted to be known, and to be loved. It’s Greer’s world. We’re all just living in it.

    To close, I would encourage supporting trans-led organizations which seek to benefit transgender folks who are at higher risk for suicide attempts, substance abuse, domestic violence, and homicide. Trans people of color are at especially higher risk. Here in Pittsburgh, SisTers and BroThers PGH, True T, and Trans You-Niting are all local community organizations which address intersecting systems of oppression to uplift and care for trans people in this city.

    [1] Personal Interview with David Newcomb, 14 July 2020 conducted by Greer Lankton Archive team. I was able to tell Newcomb about Cloey’s dream, to which he said “She wanted to be remembered, for sure.”

    [2] “Three Women Artists in the 80’s: Greer Lankton” Cellar Door Vol. xii No. 2, Spring 1985, pp 33-42, Archive Cabinet 3, shelf 3, box 1 “Newspapers and magazines 1972-1989 and undated” Folder 34.

    Categories: 
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Journal by Charles Bonaventure Scully, 1843.

     

    Manuscripts, Documents, and Journals- Oh My!

    Museum Studies Intern at Archives Service Center – Spring 2020

    For as long as I can remember, I’ve simply loved old things. I started at a young age by watching history documentaries with my parents and reading books on Egyptology. Later on, I began to collect old things.  My book collection is now at almost 60 books, with some from as early as the 1730s. My love of “old things” has always driven me to ask questions about the past and look at primary sources to see first-hand what was happening in the era I’m studying. While working at the University’s Archives Service Center this past semester, I tried to do exactly that.

    I worked on Polish in Western Pennsylvania, a collection a with multiple subseries, and focused on the Polish Societies section. The collection needed to be streamlined  to be more widely used by professors for research. I began by going through the six boxes in the series to become familiar with the many Polish societies in the Pittsburgh area and their wide influence. Just within the Lawrenceville area, there were about 3 separate chapters of the Polish Falcons of America Society. 

    After I did a first look through the materials, which consisted of documents from as early as 1916 and as recent as the 1990s, I sorted through and organized documents from the Societies subseries in Polish in Western PA Collection. I developed a plan to move the documents around and re-foldered them so they could be more easily used in future research, a kind of overhaul of the subseries. The amount of materials I had to go through was at times daunting, but I knew that by organizing this subseries, I was giving this collection a better chance of educating the public. I learned how to use Archivist Toolkit, a program the Archives Service Center uses for creating the online finding aids for the collections. I worked on updating the finding aid and making it more specific with my new organization of the folders, although it has not been published yet.

    Although my work this semester was interrupted due to COVID-19, there was actually a silver lining. I had a very interesting opportunity to do more than one project. I am now working on a transcription of the diary from 1843 by a man named Charles Bonaventure Scully, a local collector, lawyer, and Pitt graduate. Back when Scully attended the university, it was still called the Western University of Pennsylvania. His diary was fascinating in that it gives a glimpse into the daily life of a man from more than 150 years ago.

    Throughout this semester, I was able to work at the most basic level of the Archives and see the functioning of a research center. I had no idea how deep the Polish roots were in Pittsburgh and just how important these societies were to the basis of the city. My work this semester made me realize that my love of collections and old things could become more than just a hobby— it could be my career. We need collections in order to preserve human history.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
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    Small Things That Make Art Great

    HAA internship blog Clara Wang

    Museum Studies Intern at Pittsburgh Glass Center – Spring 2020

     

                As an artist, I am always interested in approaching art from new perspectives to discover how different views and experiences will change the way I see the art world. Working with the curator and marketing team in the Pittsburgh Glass Center this semester allowed me to get involved in the working process in an art gallery and it also brought my imagination about this job to back to earth.

                When I started the internship, I spent a lot of time researching and cataloging work to assist the marketing team to find more resources and promote the exhibitions. I spent weeks researching galleries and spaces where artists could display their works and hold small exhibitions. Though these kinds of research tasks are small compared with curating a show or developing a marketing plan for an exhibition. However, as I kept working on similar tasks, I realized that these small things are crucial to the functioning of the Glass Center. Working in the art world doesn’t always mean to be creative and critical all of the time. Indeed, many of the skills and responsibilities are the same as a lot of other jobs. Communicating with organizations to find the right resources; building connections with people of different professional backgrounds for potential cooperation; working with a team to figure out due dates and plans. When I finished steps like making contact lists and checking the grammar of the exhibition invitation, I kept in mind that each of these small steps are for art. Even though they didn’t seem so artistic in their process, they all promote the artists and their works to the public.

                Working with the curator to prepare the new exhibition, I was again surprised by how many small things a curator needs to manage for an exhibition. From cleaning tiny stain on display easels to deciding the font of wall text, theses details all rely on the curator. During the process, more problems will come up. For example, in the beginning, we needed to connect with every artist multiple times to check on their process to ensure the full collection of works by installation. We needed high resolution photos and descriptions of the works and artists beforehand to advertise. At the same time, we had to plan and schedule the transportation of the work. Installation was the most difficult part. It was not simply about avoiding staining a piece or breaking a fragile artwork. For some works, for example, you had to memorize how each component of the work was packed and placed in the box because after the exhibition they need to be arranged the same way again.

                Large and small, the whole process of internship gave me the chance to understand the reality of working in the art world. The huge variety of details could feel boring and stressful. But, by the time when everything is put together, you see that it is the small things makes the art shines.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • A view of It’s all About ME, Not You. Greer Lankton’s permanent installation at the Mattress Factory. More images available on the online database. Courtesy of the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.
     

    My Friend Greer

    This spring I interned at the Mattress Factory in their Greer Lankton Archive; Lankton was a doll-maker, sculpture, and mixed-media artist who came up in the East Village arts scene in the 1980s. Her work is a visceral exploration of the body and identity, that captures both the joy and the grotesque of making and remaking oneself. During my internship in the archive, I was able to spend hours sorting through not only Lankton’s artworks, but also through her correspondence, family photos, and personal belongings. The archive is part of a larger collection of Lankton’s work, most popularly known by her permanent installation It’s all About ME, not You.  

    I came to the archive as part of an on-going digitization project that hopes to relaunch the online database of her work and preserve it for future studies. I thought that I would learn how to make digital scans of images, catalog all kinds of information, and learn best practices for the preservation and storage of physical and digital items, and I did. What I did not expect was how quickly looking through all these personal items would create an emotional bond between myself and Lankton. Over the months I was there, I read her diaries, letters from friends and family, looked through her childhood photos, the photos of her friends, even her driver’s license and death certificate. Greer was the kind of person who wrote everything down, and was never shy about how she felt; she was beautiful, passionate, and deeply troubled. Even though she died before I was born, she feels like a friend going through the same things as everyone else. Preserving her legacy feels like an intimate bond of trust, it feels like I need to take care of her and whatever we have left. Lankton’s work is undoubtedly beautiful, poignant, and uniquely transparent about who she was and how she struggled.

     

    While I was there in the archive I wrote indexes and finding aids to make the space more accessible to visiting researchers and future staff, who need to be able to know what the archive contains and where to find it. I also learned the international standard for digital archives known as FADGI and how to use various adobe software to help streamline the process and insure consistent quality. My managers, Sinéad Bligh and Sarah Hallett, emphasized the need to maintain a parallel structure across the physical archive, on external hard drives, and in cloud storage, which ensures redundancies to protect the data and makes all three preservation systems mutually intelligible. I also handled, sorted, and stored a large number of Lankton’s 2D work from sketches to full illustrations and paintings. Tangibly connecting with work from across an artist’s whole career is a rare opportunity few people are lucky enough to have.

     

    Given the COVID-19 situation my museum studies internship was cut short. But,  I’ve been fortunate to be selected as a Fine Fellow for Summer 2020 and am continuing my work with Greer from home for the time being. 

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
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    Owned But Not Accounted For

    Curatorial Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Art - Spring 2020

     

    The Carnegie Museum of Art has about 600 unaccessioned works of video in physical format in its collection. This means that the museum has these things physically in storage but was unsure if they had ownership rights to the works. Many of these unaccessioned items were compilation tapes or copies of artist’s works that contained several copies of copies. The goal of the project and my job was to go through a spreadsheet that itemized every physical piece of film media, whether it was a CD, hard drive, VHS, etc., and compile enough information to be able to make a recommendation for every video.

    I had never heard the word “nebulous” as frequently as I did while working on this project for the Carnegie Museum of Art. There was no single satisfactory conclusion that was meant to be reached, and many films had been unaccessioned for 25 years or more, which meant very little documentation to work with. I worked with curators, database directors, collection managers, and registrars. The information that I needed to compile was found in the museum’s internal database, a filing cabinet in the offices of the museum, and archives in the basement of the museum. Once I compiled as much information as I could find from these sources it was up to the curators and registrars to make final decisions.

    The most important thing I learned at the Carnegie Museum of Art had nothing to do with the media I was working with. Instead, it was being able to see and hear how museum professionals communicate face-to-face. My previous two internships have been at small galleries where communication was near constant. At the Carnegie Museum of Art my office was in a small library on the second floor of the museum on almost the opposite end of the building as the main offices. Clear and concise communication was key because you didn’t know the next time you would see somebody face-to-face.

    The films and videos ultimately took a back seat to the experience of working in as complex an institution as the Carnegie Museum of Art. Learning how decisions get made in a world-class art museum and the extent of the information needed to make even minor decisions taught me how much respect has to be had for everything and everyone in the Carnegie Museum of Art.

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

    Teachers and staff outside the Selma Burke Art Center 

     

    Pittsburgh as an International Hub for Black Art and Arts Education

    Museum studies Curatorial Research Assistant at University of Pittsburgh – Spring 2020

     

    Though not always widely recognized, Pittsburgh has been an international hub for black art. I had the pleasure of working with Rebecca Giordano, curator and PhD student in the History of Art and Architecture department, on research for her upcoming exhibition on the pedagogies of 20th century sculptor Selma Burke as well as the late Selma Burke Art Center which operated in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh (1971-1982). Born at the turn of the century, Burke had a significant role in black US art throughout virtually the entirety of the 1900s as an artist, as well as a teacher. Her early ventures into teaching such as her school of sculpture in New York City during the 1940s serve as prime examples of her belief in the importance of teaching art to people from all walks of life. These experiences set the tone for the institution she would create in Pittsburgh, the Selma Burke Art Center. Operating from 1971 to 1981, the Center integrated itself into the community as an integral hub of cultural growth and experience. Offering inexpensive art classes and exhibitions of local and international artists, the Center unfortunately could not remain open, yet its impact remained apparent.

    To get at this neglected history, I completed archival research, by searching through databases and cataloguing newspaper clippings, reading through archival documents, photographs, and other materials, as well as managing the collection of research materials through organization and scanning. I applied curatorial methods by developing frameworks the upcoming exhibit and exploring ways that objects can be used to convey an idea or argument in their display.

    Going into this internship, I had little knowledge of what it meant to curate a show in a gallery. I quickly learned that most curatorial work is based in research. Through this extensive investigation of the impact and involvement of the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, I gained a better understanding of what the process of curatorial research looks like and what skills I honed by doing it. The practice of research is almost always ad hoc-weaving through sources, connecting findings to new ones. I was able to gain invaluable experience in not only searching for information using primary sources, but also piecing together relationships mapping together networks that construct a narrative of the past. Understanding the work that goes into creating and planning an exhibit will be very useful in my career, and I am positive that the exhibit we have worked towards will be one to remember.

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

    A mysterious unidentified sculpture outside of Benedum Hall.

     

    Exploring the Familiar

    Museum Studies Intern at Art on Campus -- Spring 2020

    Picture the ground floor of Posvar Hall. Continuous renovations have turned old and dusty sitting areas into contemporary study spots and cultural education areas. A long, open area leads to multiple doorways and elevators upstairs. Now picture all six artworks that decorate that space. Can you think of all of them? And if you can, how many of them can you name?

    I have been interning in a project called Art on Campus this semester. It is a joint effort by the University of Pittsburgh’s University Art Gallery and the University Library System to identify public art on campus, catalog it, and research it. The goal is to assemble a website with a detailed profile on each artwork so that curious students and visitors can read about anything that catches their eye. As an intern, I have done a lot of things for the project: researching artworks, contributing to databases, conducting condition reports, and searching campus for public artworks.

    Finding artworks on campus has made me realize how much I had failed and how much I had not failed to notice around me. Mysterious artworks hide in strange corners and crannies. The Third Century, a work by a Chatham professor, sits in an inaccessible courtyard inside of the Cathedral of Learning, and a so-far unidentified metal sculpture of symbols hangs out by a side entrance of Benedum Hall. Whenever I went out to look for artworks and found hidden gems like these, it bewildered me that I had never noticed them before.

    What surprised me even more was what I found when I began looking harder. I expected to notice artworks on every corner, carvings on every building, and plaques on every important-looking wall. But, outside of concentrations of art like the Cathedral of Learning and the Forbes Quadrangle, I found almost nothing. On top of that, only two of the works my colleagues and I found were created by female artists.

    Researching art on campus has made me think more about the spaces I pass through every day. Every building and street on campus has a secret or two hidden in plain sight.
    These secrets could be enigmatic artworks or forgotten histories that start to become clear when you take the time to look into them. Next time you pass through Posvar Hall, look around that ground floor, find all six works of art, and see how many have names on display.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
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    Building A Community in an Education Department

    Museum Studies Intern at Education Department in Carnegie Museum of Art– Spring 2020

     

    What does it take to build community in a museum department? As an intern at Education Department of the Carnegie Museum of Art, I contributed to building a coherent community among the large and diverse staff. The education department organizes programs to engage the public with the art museum’s content including the summer camps for youth and drop-in programs. Summer camps and Art Connections provide art classes for kids and teenagers annually. Other programs, like ARTVentures, happen every weekend for gallery visitors of any age to engage with art. These programs are led by part-time staff drawn from Pittsburgh’s art community.

     

    To help build that community among the teaching artists, full-time staff, and volunteer docents, I needed to get to know the programs in the department. To start, I assisted teaching artists with the Art Connection class for 9th grade students by setting up and cleaning up materials, discussing the kids’ thoughts on their artworks and providing them feedback. I participated in several docent training programs. Learning the programs for the docents offered a window on communication and interactions among the department as a whole.

     

    Through these experiences, I learned about techniques for gallery engagement and the day-to-day of museum educators. Based on these conversations, the next phase of my internship addressed the specific needs of the part-time artists and developed methods to keep the artists informed on relevant matters and promote a friendly environment for networking. This broad view helped me understand how having a scheduled meeting weekly and an annual trip which could hold the docent community tighter

     

    One of the projects in the scheme of community building is creating a manual for part-time staff. After a series of meetings and discussions with all the education department staff, I catalogued materials about the museum’s vision, part-time staff duties and evaluation, and art education ideas. I organized these resources under the big topic of “museum education as profession”. By organizing relevant materials into one handbook, we aimed to create a sense of identity and belonging for part-time staff in the education department. This manual affirmed the value of their efforts as a contribution to the museum’s mission, defining their position and contribution, and offering helpful resources for them to generate new ideas for lessons and programs.

     

    In the end of my internship, I designed for the content of the training manual and laid out the blueprint for it. I feel very grateful to intern at the CMOA education department to discover how the museum runs all public programs smoothly through administrative efforts behind the scenes.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • MET Miniature Collection Stamps

     

    Experiences Shape You and Your Resume

    Museum Studies Intern at Contemporary Craft - Spring 2020

     

    Craft is skillful making which generally produces a functional object. This functional object could be edible, drunk from, or worn. Craft objects can be made from wood, clay, glass, fiber, metal, and found materials. Craft is universal and personal. They come from traditional techniques and familiar materials. These methods are ways to slow down and create. These aspects translate throughout Contemporary Craft’s organization in their mission statement, classes offered, the shop, and their exhibitions.

     

    While at Contemporary Craft, I completed a handful of projects. I created a bibliography for some of the older books in their collection. In this task, I determined an individual book’s educational and monetary value. Many of these books required translating from Portuguese or French to determine the subject of the book. I then estimated its value based on other listings of the same book. One of the more interesting book collections that I saw was the MET Miniature collection books.

     

    After this book assignment, I began more hands-on tasks around Contemporary Craft. Since they had just moved locations when I started, there were a lot of things I could do to help out: painting, unpacking, and moving boxes. Sadly, this did not last long as we soon moved to an online internship.

     

    Reconstructing my assignments into a virtual internship, my supervisor, Janet McCall, decided I should interview the staff members. This assignment would help me better understand each person’s role at Contemporary Craft and help shape my post-graduation job search. I structured a set of questions around basic information about their careers, their jobs, how the move affected them and, lastly, how they have adapted to working from home. Throughout this process, I learned about each persons’ educational background, past jobs, and their current position. Hearing about their experience and education was the most helpful. Some got their job strictly because of their work experience while others seemed propelled by education. Mixed in the questions, I asked them what advice they would have given themselves right out of undergrad. Rather than seeking out the perfect opportunity, most of their answers suggested experiencing everything you can so that you can find the things you actually like to do. In my final semester at Pitt, my time at Contemporary Craft made clear that to craft these work experiences is to shape one’s purpose.

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

    Christina Hansen using a soft bristle brush and HEPA vacuum to remove surface contaminants from the taxidermied (Ursus maritimus) in Polar World.

     

    Mitigating Unwelcome Bugs and Dust, but Preserving Petrified Puke

    When exploring the hallowed halls of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, guests might expect to find themselves enraptured by dinosaur skeletons, mesmerized by walls of butterfly and beetle displays, or have their breath taken away by award-winning nature photography. But, as a conservation intern, I focused my personal queries on the “yucky” stuff – unwelcome creepy crawlies, dust bunnies, and the powdery remains of historical vomit!

    During the Spring 2020 semester, I interned under the guidance of Gretchen Anderson, conservator and head of the Section of Conservation. Gretchen’s philosophy for collections care is preservation through preventative action and reducing the risk of damages before they occur. Therefore, most of my time was spent carrying out annual housekeeping tasks to remove dust, stray Cheerios and other surface contaminants that build up in public-facing displays over time. Not only do these measures keep displays looking beautiful for guests, but they also mitigate conditions favorable for insect habitation and feeding.

    One Tuesday, with the museum closed, a crew of collections management specialists and a slew of giant suction cups removed the glass on the Alcoa Native American Basketry Cases. Gretchen and I were joined by Deborah Harding, collection manager of the Section of Anthropology, to assess the condition of the encased objects for the first time since the exhibit’s installation. Over those past twenty-odd years, the collection had accumulated a light layer of dust and developed areas of salt crystals, but overall maintained its previous condition.

    We worked under the illumination of spotlights, gently removing surface contaminants, while Deborah pointed out design motifs and shared stories associated with the museum’s vast basketry collection. There are some objects that contain “ethnographic materials” ranging from cornmeal and pollen residue, to traces of human vomit once deposited during ceremonial emetic purification practices. These types of samples pose additional conservation concerns for mold growth and require specific storage solutions, but contribute to the object’s cultural context and should be preserved along with the object itself.

    Due to the unique circumstances of COVID-19, my physical experience in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History has been digitally supplemented with online Integrated Pest Management training. Armed with the spring’s cumulative knowledge, I move forward better prepared to protect collections of baskets, furs, feathers, or even preserved puke from unwelcome critters and the ravages of time.

     

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

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