I carpooled with Megan and Susannah to the conference. We had to get up extra early because the Keynote speaker's presentation started at 9:00. The Keynote was a folklorist and musician named Hal Cannon; amongst many other things, he founded the National Cowboy Poetry Gatherings (who knew those existed?) and the Western Folklife Center. His talk was fascinating. He sang a few cowboy songs to us, and played recordings of others that he had collected. A large part of his career has been interviewing people to collect the folklore of the West, so he had these tips on how to conduct a great interview:
- Consider yourself on the same level as the speaker.
- Silence. (If you're silent, it forces the other person to talk.)
- “Be dumb.” Don't be afraid to ask the obvious.
I thought it was a fantastic, energizing way to start the morning – which was very important, because there wasn't a cup of coffee to be found anywhere.
The first session that I went to was To Collect or Not to Collect: Considerations for Contemporary Art Curators. Even though the museums I've been fortunate enough to work at have not been art museums, that's still where I ultimately want to end up. But one of the biggest holes in my education has been contemporary art – I don't usually like it and I don't care for most of it, so I took as few post-19th century classes as I could get away with in school. Anyway, I thought the talk was pretty good. There were three institutions represented: Mary Elizabeth Dee Shaw Gallery at Weber State University, Sun Valley Center for the Arts, and Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Depending on the purpose of the institution, acquiring new works might not be a priority. For example, the Sun Valley Center literally cannot acquire new works – they have no storage space and it's not their goal to create a permanent collection. By contrast, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts has an endowment to fund the purchase new works, but it hasn't money to exhibit them. The gallery at Weber State may or may not be able to purchase new works, but as a teaching university collecting isn't really its purpose. They briefly discussed a challenge that is somewhat unique to contemporary art - how to “collect” an ephemeral work, like performance art or something created with a disposable material. There was an artist on the panel, as well as the three museum representatives, and he mentioned that the needs of a museum often led to an artist compromising or changing his piece, which made the curator from Utah Museum of Fine Arts laugh and admit that working with living artists definitely complicated exhibiting an object.
After lunch, I went to my second session, Narrowing the Focus of Exhibitions: Is Your Exhibition Growing Out of Control? It wasn't a topic that particularly excited me; it just sounded more interesting than the alternatives in the same time slot. But I was really glad that I went. I learned that museum visitors are commonly divided into three types: Streakers, Strollers and Studiers. Streakers rush through the museum, looking but not really reading or interacting. They make up about 30% of visitors. 50% of museum visitors are Strollers – they read some signs, they'll watch video and play with interactions, but if there's too much information they'll skip it. The last 20% of museum visitors are the Studiers who actively engage and absorb the information. These are the only ones who might read every single block of text.
One of the presenters was Dave Stroud, the Director of Interactive Exhibits at Thanksgiving Point Institute, and he was incredibly enthusiastic because he's currently working on a new children's museum scheduled to open next year. His example of maintaining focus was a playground/exhibit they're developing for that site – it's themed around the work of Archimedes, so all the swingsets and see-saws and other features have to tie into that theme. Explaining this concept has sometimes been difficult, since a board member might see the plans and say, “When I was a kid I loved _____. Why isn't that in the playground?” Dave then has to patiently explain that yes, ______ is a great feature but since it doesn't suit the theme and the lesson the museum's trying to teach, it can't be in the playground. He also said that if he could do things his way, there would be no words in the museum – exhibits would be so intuitive that people could figure things out on his own. While this works great in a “museum of curiosity” or other children's museums, I think people would struggle in an art or history museum if explanatory text wasn't available. It was an interesting perspective, all the same.
The last session of the day was NAGPRA Repatriations: Lessons Learned and Future Challenges. NAGPRA, for my non-archeologist friends, is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Basically, it's a law that states that Native American remains and burial objects, as well as 'significant' cultural objects, must be returned to the tribes from which it came. NAGPRA has been in effect for about twenty years now, and the results have been mixed. On the one hand, museums have returned a lot of materials to tribes – but as the NAGPRA Review Committee member dryly observed, only about 10-20% of Native American objects have been returned, so that's hardly a cause for celebration. As one of his fellow panelists pointed out, the items that are easy to identify have been returned. But in order to get something removed from a museum through NAGPRA, cultural affiliation has to be proven, and for a lot of objects it can't be done because the tribe is extinct or the objects are so old that they can't be linked to any particular group. For example, the Anasazi disappeared in the 13th - 14th century – we're pretty sure that their descendents are the Puebloan people, but the Puebloans are a diverse group that include Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and others. We can't really repatriate objects to just one Pueblo group, so the artifacts stay in the museum. It's tough, but one sign of progress is that museum directors and curators are so open to repatriation now – when the act was first created, there was a lot of concern that scientific research would be impossible because of the returns. This has not been the case, thankfully – and there are many examples of ways that collaborating with tribes has actually helped museums.
After the last session ended, I rejoined Megan and Susannah, and with some of Megan's friends we went to a pub for beers. Well, about half the group drank – the rest of us decided to save our money and wait 'til we went to the evening event at the Natural History Museum, where we were promised “hearty” appetizers and drinks. I guess that's the difference between museum professionals with actual jobs and grad student and interns.
The Natural History Museum was really cool! There was a Navajo basket maker working in the Native American galleries, and he happily shared the stories behind some common basket designs and passed around examples of the materials he uses to make baskets. In another gallery a flute player performed music while we stuffed ourselves on the not-quite-hearty appetizers. The Paleontology Lab was open, and that was awesome – I went in and talked to a technician who was unpacking a dinosaur bone that had been buried in the earth only a few days before! (It had just arrived at the museum the previous day.) They had a few dioramas with taxidermy animals, but not as many as I would have thought. There were tons of interactive exhibits, though – DNA sequencing, volcano building, a tornado simulator – and even though the evening was officially for networking, I totally spent the entire time absorbed in the displays. Oops. There was just too much to see and do!
When we got back to Megan's house, the three of us decided to watch stupid reality TV shows to unwind from so much mental stimulation. Since Susannah's from Alaska, we decided to watch "Alaska Women Looking For Love", which has got to be one of the silliest concepts for a show that I've ever seen. A group of Alaskan women aren't having any luck finding men in their hometown, so they fly to Miami to find their true love. On the one hand, WHAT? That's beyond ridiculous!! On the other hand, those girls got a free trip to Florida, which is right smart of them. After we finished the first episode of that show, we moved on to to bridezillas yelling at family members about wedding dresses. As one does.