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

  • 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

    Tagging films by language to make them more accessible to the public

     

    Making Meaning Through Memory: a Museums Role in the Coronavirus Pandemic

    Museum Studies intern at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, Spring 2020

     

    You might expect a Holocaust center to be a solemn, distressing space. However, while the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh takes its subject matter very seriously, it is quite the opposite. 

    As an intern, I got a sense that although the space was small and the atmosphere was light-hearted, the Center’s projects and ambitions reached far beyond the walls of the building. Even while routine tasks, like keyword tagging books for the online database, there were moments when a name or a story would touch me and remind me of why what I was doing was important.

    The Center serves an important role in the Pittsburgh Jewish community. They hold events that educate and connect people in the memorialization of the Holocaust. They give Holocaust survivors and their families a platform to share their story if and when they wish. In fact, the team working at the Center all showed me that with a lot of hard work, museums can be warm and inviting spaces that people can turn to in times of crisis. 

    Recently, the Center has had to step up and support the community in unforeseen ways. The team at the enter explained to me that after the Synagogue attack in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 people started walking into the Center simply looking for a place where they would be heard and understood. After going above and beyond to support people through this deeply traumatic experience, the Center has received international attention.

    The last time I left the Center, I was preparing to go home for spring break with no idea of what was to come. When it became clear that I would not return to Pittsburgh because of the intensifying Coronavirus outbreak, I expected the Holocaust Center to shut down like museums across the country. Instead, I was impressed how the Center and other museums reached out to the community. In unprecedented times the Center, though just a small operation, has been able to organize free online workshops, vigils, panel discussions, and more. 

    As the world has turned to online networks, organizations like the Anti-Defamation League have been warning that there has been a rise of hate crimes by white supremacists, who thrive in these online environments. Assaults on the Asian community have become more frequent, and more and more violent rhetoric is targeting other minority groups. The Holocaust Center, by refusing to let physical barriers stop them from making their educational programs accessible and by speaking out against this hatred, is making an impact.

    In the last few years, I have spent time working in various roles focused on understanding the Holocaust and its connection with hatred and racism today. I have seen firsthand how resources like museums and archives can empower people through facts and information. The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh has shown me how, bolstered by the power of history, a museum can guide people through times of crisis. 

     

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

    WWI Display Utilizing Rare Donated Items

     

    The Duality of War

    There are always two sides to any conflict in life. In my time studying History at Pitt, I’ve narrowed the focus of my studies on learning the untold narrative, the stories that are often left out of general history textbooks. As I began my internship at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, the complexity of historical events like war and their human dimensions began to stick out for me.  Most of my work in the museum was done in collections and archives. I accepted donations, cataloged and assessed items for display and inventory, and evaluated the condition of artifacts. As I worked on items that came directly from people’s homes and personal lives, I came to realize how important individual experience is in even the most major historical events. Though I have studied history by sitting in lectures and reading textbooks, this hands-on experience at Soldiers and Sailors brought to life how no matter the conflict or the ideology behind it, both sides have human beings involved with their own stories.

    For instance, I processed a donation by the family of a WWII veteran who served in the Pacific Ocean theater of the war. In this collection was a letter taken from the body of a deceased Japanese soldier. The US veteran had this letter which was originally written for the Japanese soldier’s home village translated from Japanese to English. In it, the soldier explained how uncertain he was about being in this war and that he was afraid how far they must go to be victorious. Nevertheless, he assured his family he was alright and that he was simply fulfilling his duty to his country. Reading this letter opened my eyes to the reality of war and how often the soldiers who risk their lives, on either side, dedicate their lives to causes they may not even fully believe or support. I was able to takeaway a fresh perspective on the reality that history is often written by the victors, and to be able to truly study the untold narrative one must be able to see how conflicts have multiple sides to them.

    Along with this personal awakening of sorts, I had the pleasure to be apart of several ceremonies where local veterans who went above and beyond the call of duty, were honored and celebrated with the Museums ever expanding Hall of Valor. The experienced I gained setting up the event and preparing speeches for inductees’ family members to read, rounded out my work at Soldiers & Sailors, to include aspects of both the education and collection side of museum operations.

    With the experience and knowledge that I gained by having my hand in a variety of efforts at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, I hope to continue my interest in exploring history in the museum setting, telling the stories of the past and speaking for those who no longer can share for themselves.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
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    The Work Behind the Artifacts

    Museum Studies Intern at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropolgy – Spring 2020

     

    Walking into the Anthropology department of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History I was confronted with an endless array of cabinets, filled to the brim with artifacts from around the world. I was surrounded by drawers holding carved ivories from Japan, pots from the Mayan empire, and statues from New Guinea, the kind of precious objects that could be the spoils in an Indiana Jones movie. When I was a kid, I loved those kinds of movies, they filled me with a sense of wonder and excitement about the world, and ever since I have wanted to work at a museum. However, the work is far less glamourous than the movies make it out to be, if anything is. I knew that museum work would not be an adventure, but something that did surprise me was how much of my work was making up for past mistakes.

    I focused on the maintenance of the South American pottery collection. I spent much of my time documenting and building supports for pottery. Earlier supports were built using brittle materials and easily broke. The foam and other materials contained chemicals that could lead to the degradation of the pottery and instability in the supports. It is important to note that these materials were the best available at the time, but as technologies advance, so should museums. I created new supports for each pot using high quality and non-toxic materials that will last for potentially hundreds of years and keep pots from breaking.

    In addition to making new supports, I photographed and documented the pots, updating previous documentation. Of course, when the pots entered into the museum collection in the early twentieth-century modern computer technology did not exist, so I spent a lot of time transferring old documents into new digital databases. Despite this not being the action-packed work people might associate with an intrepid anthropologist, I loved every second of it. I was afforded the opportunity to work with pots that were hundreds of years old and ensure their safety for future generations. The documentation and photographs now make numerous artifacts available for study by archeologists from around the world. I learned about the innerworkings of museums and proper artifact care, giving me a whole new perspective on my potential career. Maintenance of objects and their records is big part of museum work and I am happy to know that my actions will have a tangible impact in the museum community. While I was not Indiana Jones, I helped bring long-forgotten objects to light

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

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