Thursday, January 25, 2007

(Museum) Architecture and Cultural Identity

The majority of my last post was taken from an editorial that I wrote for a Public History class exercise back in mid-October, 2006. Recent experiences have caused me to reflect in different ways on the case of the ROM's Michael Lee-Chin Crystal.

The architecture that a community chooses for its major cultural institutions reveals, of course, much about the values the society, community and particular designers want to infuse in that institution. The ROM website features a couple of interesting pages on the Museum's history; they teach that the original building was opened to the public on 19 March 1914. On the left is a photograph of a hand-lettered and illuminated presentation address, given as a gift by Toronto artist A.H. Howard to the Governor General of Canada on the occasion of his official opening of the ROM.

We are all familiar with the notion that, when public museums began to emerge in force in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of their architects turned to Neoclassical, or Gothic architectural forms.[1] New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (opened in its current location in 1880), American Museum of Natural History (opened 1877), as well as The Cloisters (a museum devoted to Medieval Art, opened in 1914 and now a branch of the MET) provide a few examples. We all know that there is nothing indigenous about Classical and Medieval art & architecture in North America. Borrowing those European forms, however, lent credibility and authenticity to our young nations' new institutions.

Much, I'm sure, has been written on Architecture's role in Nation-building in the late nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries in Europe. For a couple of accessible examples, see Heather McMahon's M.A. Thesis (Central European University, 2004) on constructing a Hungarian national architectural style at the turn of the 20th century, and the blog post of South Hadley, Mass., Ph.D. student "Nathanael" on "A Catholic Style, A German Style" in the Rhine River region.

I think that "nation-building" through the use of value-laden architecture also happened on a much smaller scale than that of grand Gothic Cathedrals and national museums. American horticulturalist and writer Andrew Jackson Downing's 1850 book The Architecture of Country Houses, for example, aimed to educate the American middle class about the virtues of "uniting a simple and chaste Gothic style with forms adapted to and expressive of our modern domestic life." Downing ascribed a moralizing function to romantic architecture - one that he hoped would strengthen Americans' moral virtue.[2]

What's really interesting, though, is that in the midst of all this turn-of-the-century boasting about the value of old European forms in North American contexts, American librarian and museum director John Cotton Dana wrote in 1917 about "The Gloom of the Museum." Of particular interest are his arguments about how the museum edifice should be in harmony with its surroundings. His argument is worth quoting at some length here:

"A building of steel and concrete in a modern American city is not made an appropriate home of the fine arts by placing on its front the facade of one or the facades of half a dozen Greek temples or of 15th-century Italian palaces (...) In time we shall learn to insist that great public buildings like libraries and museums be erected as such and not as imitations of structures developed for quite other purposes, in other cities, in other times, and under limitations as to material and method by which we are no longer bound."[3]

It's remarkable that Dana's ninety year-old argument resonates when we think about the current trend of hiring big-name architects of international fame to renovate our museums. The ROM crystal and the Denver Art Museum extension are, in my mind, imitations of Libeskind's earlier designs - ones developed for other purposes, in other times, and in other cities. Are those who approve these design decisions trying to project a certain image for our cities, just as was Downing? Are they involved in some kind of contemporary "nation-building" themselves? Libeskind's crystal and another current, large-scale renovation, Frank Gehry's plans for the Art Gallery of Ontario will surely boost Toronto's reputation for 'world-class' architecture. But what cost do such unapologetically cosmopolitan projects as Libeskind's exact? Are there drawbacks to housing the ROM's collections in a building that could just as well be in Berlin? I'm still trying to think this problem through. Any thoughts?

[1]. As is likely fairly clear, I am no art history expert. The MET is a bit of a confusing case for me: I've seen reference to it as an example of Neoclassical architecture, but also to it as an example of Gothic Revival. Do any art historians out there care to clear up my confusion?

[2]. See Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses (New York: Appleton & Co, 1850), 440, as cited in Elizabeth Bradford Smith, ed., Medieval Art in America: Patterns of Collecting 1800-1940 (exhibition catalogue) Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University (University Park, PA, 1996), 77.

[3]. Dana, "The Gloom of the Museum," in Gail Anderson, ed., Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2004), 22.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Museums should avoid designs of the past, demand innovation

On the left is a projected view of Daniel Libeskind's new crystal design for the Royal Ontario Museum's extension. The image is taken from Libeskind's website. The ROM is touting the current construction of this extension as part of the institution's total rebirth. "Renaissance ROM is one of the most important architectural commissions of our time," boasts the ROM's website. The project, the website continues, "...will simultaneously restore one of Canada's historic landmarks to its original splendour and create a new signature building for the city of Toronto."

Sounds fantastic! I love the ROM. I was a Saturday Morning Club-goer for years, and that experience continues to make me feel at home in the Museum. [1] The ROM was an integral part of my unique experience of growing up in Toronto. I'm glad that Libeskind's design was tailor-made for the great city.

Or was it? On the right is a 2006 construction photo taken from Daniel Libeskind's website. It depicts his extension to the Denver Art Museum. Hmmm. The geometric projections and intersecting line design features look familiar, don't they? Below is a photo of another of Libeskind's unique designs: The Jewish Museum, Berlin, opened 2001 in the downtown core of the German capital.

“I was inspired by the mountains”, is how Libeskind explained his design for the Denver Art Museum, opened 7 October 2006. Curiously, there are no mountains visible from downtown Berlin. When the Jewish Museum opened in 2001, Libeskind explained that its design evoked the absence of Berlin’s Jewish citizens. There are no mountains nearby Toronto, and Libeskind has stated that his “Renaissance ROM” design illustrates the relationship between history and the new.

Is the concept of site-specific design alien to Mr. Libeskind? Does not a city’s particular history and culture demand a museum that will honour its individuality? I’d bet a whole pile of Denver Nuggets that few Denverites think their urban culture is interchangeable with that of Torontonians, or Berliners. Yet within two years, two of our major North American Museums will have chosen NOT to support cutting-edge design in their major architectural additions. Instead, they will have relied on near-identical architecture to communicate wildly different messages. Our ROM could have avoided relying on past designs. It could have, instead, opted for architecture that reflected Toronto’s unique past, and particular cultural heritage.

As intelligent citizens of the world’s dynamic cities, we need not support architectural redundancy. If we are informed of great international designs, we can demand that our own cultural institutions – as well as our municipal and provincial governments – embrace architectural innovation.

[1]. The ROM's Saturday Morning Club offers a number of really neat educational programs for kids. Each program runs for approximately 8 weeks, with 3-hour long meetings every Saturday morning.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A little bit of history (and museology) repeating

I'm currently taking an art history course on how North Americans have collected medieval Art, and how we've displayed it in our museums. We're also looking at some of the challenges and issues we face when we mount medieval art exhibitions for diverse audiences today.

We spent Wednesday's seminar talking about the nineteenth century beginnings of individuals' collecting of medieval art. I learned that some of the issues we've encountered in our public history context about authentic, versus replica artifacts arose in that early collecting period in America.

Apparently, when the first big public art museums began to be established in the States after the Civil War, art was largely thought of as an educational tool for the masses. We know this - we're familiar with the notion of fine art having some moral effect on its audience. But did you know that, at that time, Americans weren't exactly sure of how to approach the public display of European art? Museum officials were a little uneasy with oft smooth-talking European dealers, and their ability to swindle. So, American museums of the late 19th century preferred displaying reproductions of great works of European art.[1]

It's interesting to think that those museum officials thought reproductions could effectively communicate important moral lessons. For them, then, the authenticity of the piece was subordinate to a more general message. The contemporary writings on collections and pedagogy that I listed in my last blog post seem to embody very similar notions.

And we think we're being avant-garde when we reflect on the emerging "post-museum" that reimagines museums' identity.[2] It's all just little bits of history repeating.

[1] All of this information (though corroborated by my Professor, Dr. Kathryn Brush, and by my classmates, all graduate students in art history who know worlds more about this stuff than I ever, ever will), is outlined in a really neat exhibition catalogue. We're using this catalogue, itself put together by Penn State grad students, as one of our core textbooks: Medieval Art in America: Patterns of Collecting, 1800-1940 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1996). See page 22 for this particular reference. This catalogue is neat because it displays medieval art, but it also explains Americans' evolution of taste in collecting. The exhibition it documents was an exhibition about past exhibitions.

[2] Yes, "post-museum." Sigh. See Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture (New York: Routledge, 2000), preface. She writes that the "post-museum" is emerging in the 21st century. It is a place where the visitor is active, and where that visitor determines meaning in the museum.

Move over, Collections

In last Tuesday's Introduction to Museum Studies class, we discussed the centrality of collections in defining museums. In last Wednesday's Public History class we thought about criticism the Canadian Museum of Civilization received in its early days for seemingly favouring other elements of its presentation - such as live performances, exhibits that replicated places of the past, and some replica artifacts - over its collections of authentic artifacts.

The last museum visit I made was to the McCord. I wasn't particularly moved by the museum's Simply Montréal permanent exhibit until I saw an element that bore direct relevance to my life experience. It was stationed near the exhibit's end. It wasn't an authentic artifact that caught my eye. It was a simplified map of the city, apparently constructed (out of some kind of plywood) specifically for the exhibit. The map was colour-coded according to predominant languages spoken per area, and was fixed to a wall below a silent film clip that featured Montrealers 'on the go' in the city.

This component of the exhibit moved me because it spoke directly to my life experience. The video clip featured shots from my neighborhood. That was my hook. It didn't come from an 'authentic' historic artifact. What's more, only after that "aha!" moment did I care to pay attention to the "big idea" of the Simply Montréal exhibit. The "big idea", paraphrased, is this: Montréal is a neat city that owes its dynamism to its rich history. The McCord evinces that rich history through First Nations objects, Notman photographs, and a diverse array of everyday objects of Montrealers such as apparel, and household items.

These objects are incredibly varied. To ensure that its visitor has an "aha!" moment like mine - or to make sure that moment comes before the exhibit's end - the McCord could make its curatorial voice louder. I believe it could do this by including more teaching tools, like the map and video, in the exhibit. Without such tools, I argue, visitors may not understand the big "so what?" that links the collection.

Move over, collections! Yes, yes, you reside at the museum's core, but share the spotlight with pedagogy. I'm adding my voice to some comments my colleagues have made. They have referred to the Canadian Museum of Civilization as example. Alex has reflected on the need to balance "flashy interactives" and artifact replicas with authentic collections. Carling has insisted that collection and interpretation is what "makes a museum a museum." Additionally, I argue, it is constructive to think of pedagogy as extending beyond interpretation in the exhibit itself. We all know that funding crises plague museums. With that important reality in mind, I say that, ideally, museums' educational programming can work to effectively integrate the museum into its community.

Some things I've read the past week do a great job of articulating the need to place pedagogy at the museum's core. They all address the ways to make the museum relevant to communities today. The following ideas have inspired me to think of the museum in different ways:

1. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill argues for the museum as a "social and cultural institution." Museums can be important (and necessary, even) cultural centres. She writes of research in England that uncovered a common notion among "ethnic" communities that museums ignored Black contributions to British life because, it was thought, those museums continued a colonial view of the past. The same study, however, also confirmed that said communities thought museums could be places where Asian and Afro-Caribbean parents could meet to discuss their own cultural values. [1]

2. E.H. Gurian has argued that the essence of a museum is not objects. Rather, it is a "place that stores memories." Objects are necessary for the museum, but they are not sufficient. What people really care about is ownership of a story. They don't care about ownership of the artifact itself. [2] If museums are less object-based, artifacts are props. Again, they are essential to a museum's purpose, but only in so far as they make an exhibit's 'big idea' tangible. The foundational definition of the museum, Gurain writes, will not centre on objects, but rather on the institution as a place for storytelling "in tangible sensory form." Providing a story is to perform a community service. As such, museums are "social service providers."[3]

3. Stephen E. Weil's writing can help us think further on these kinds of ideas. While museums once focused predominantly on collections (development, research, conservation, etc.), he writes many now have shifted that focus to public service. Collections, he continues, are no longer an end in themselves. Instead, they are a means to that end. Museums should ask about each artifact's utility: "how might this object be useful to the museum in carrying out its institutional mission?" In this way, museums subordinate collections to a bigger vision of the museum's function in the community. [4]

[1]. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture (New York: Routledge, 2000), 7.
[2]. E.H. Gurian, "What is the Object of the Exercise? A Meandering Exploration of the Many Meanings of Objects in Museums" in Gail Anderson, ed., Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2004), 270-1.
[3]. Gurian in Anderson, 282-3.
[4]. Stephen E. Weil, "Collecting Then, Collecting Today: What's the Difference?" in Anderson, 290.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Keeping up with Canada

Words of the late black American poet, June Jordan, can remind us of the limits of some of our national museums. They may even indicate one of the major challenges facing Canadian museums today:

"Take me into the museum and show me myself, show me my people, show me soul America. If you cannot show me myself, if you cannot teach my people what they need to know (...) then why shouldn't I attack the temples of America and blow them up?" [1]

Are we terribly out of touch with our country's social, cultural, economic and intellectual realities when we mount permanent exhibitions that depict and interpret Canadian history? Do you think that any interpretation of our past becomes out-of-date the moment after it is fixed to a museum wall? What if our national museums featured nothing but temporary exhibits? Taking a cue from theatres, all of these temporary exhibit spaces could be designed with flexibility in mind, for transformation to best suit successive exhibits.

Canada is constantly changing. Our political landscape shifts, bringing with it multitudes of new attitudes - dissenting and assenting - that affect our intellectual climate. New immigrants settle in Canada, and affect our cultural and social realities. The Canada that my thirteen-year old sister knows now is different from the one I knew at her age, and our present realities, of course, determine the ways we interpret the past. Do you think the steady change of exhibitions and exhibition techniques in our national museums might keep our institutions from becoming museums of old museology?

[1] June Jordan as cited in Edward P. Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums (Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 1996), 6.