Saturday, September 11, 2010

White Kids on Bicycles: Museums' Most Important Target Audience?


Here, in Florida, I almost feel like it's a four letter word.  Nobody wants to talk about it out loud, but lots of people ask me about the details of the city in private, with a kind of morbid curiosity.  "Are there really bears in downtown?"  "Do people really shoot raccoons and sell the meat to survive?"

When I first got back to Gainesville, I met with my advisior and he had just as many questions about the city-- albeit much more relevant and realistic ones.  I'm happy to answer them.  I don't want people to think of Detroit as some kind of scary, forbidden place full of mystery and lore.  In that meeting, we talked a lot about the arts of Detroit.  Of course, there is the DIA, the Detroit Symphony Opera, etc.  But there is also the electronic music festival, The Scarab Club, the Heidelberg Project, and other more grassroots art movements.

When I was finishing up my internship at the DIA, Larry (programming director) asked me about my likes and dislikes, in an effort to find out more about the DIA's newest target audience: 20-somethings.

My birthday last week might even push me out of the most sought-after group: early 20-somethings.

I urge my countless readers to watch ALL of the videos presented here.  Palladium Boots (for some reason...) teamed up with Johnny Knoxville, of MTV's "Jackass" fame, to create a series of three videos that spotlight the "other" side of Detroit-- you know, the side that's not eating raccoons.

Don't let Johnny Knoxville's association with "Jackass" fool you (Dad!)-- he takes a very respectful, curious, compassionate, and intelligent approach to the city. 

One segment features restaurant owner, Larry Mongo, who speaks about owning a business in Detroit.  He told a story about how he closed up his restaurant after a string of murders in the neighborhood, leaving it closed for a long period (I don't believe he specified... but it sounded like more than a month).  After being closed for so long, he said one day, a group of "200 white kids on bicycles" were outside the restaurant, asking when he would open again.

Yes, hipsters are moving into Detroit.  As Larry states, they're not taking over-- they're just filling in the gaps in much the same way that African Americans filled in the gaps when the white community left Detroit.  Now that everyone has left, the hipsters are filling in.

There is a movement brewing in Detroit.  These kids, in their late teens and early twenties, are active in the community and are passionate about bringing art and life back to Detroit.  These are the people that the museums want to target, and with good reason!

It's no wonder that Inside|Out has been such a hit!  The community is thirsty for that kind of outreach and "beautification".  I realize that projects like this are like a band-aid on a gunshot wound.  Certainly, 40 fake paintings aren't going to revitalize the city.  But, I think it will do a lot to inspire and motivate the people who see them to continue in that direction of change and regrowth.

I've touched on this before but, it has been hotly debated among museum professionals so it's worth discussing again: What is the purpose of a museum?

A lot of museum professionals believe that museums exist to collect, preserve, and display works of art.  Others argue that civic engagement is a necessary function, in addition to those listed.

I think it depends greatly on what the community needs.  In Detroit's Cultural Center, students and recent graduates of Wayne State University and the College for Creative Studies are the biggest catalyst of the revitalization of that area (it's one of the fastest growing and trendiest areas of the city).  As the Palladium videos show, the young people of Detroit are motivated and willing to work on facilitating change in the city.  I think they can find a partner in the DIA. 

Detroit does not need a stoic, static building full of paintings.  It needs an active organization that can fill some of the gaps in the failing school system, provide a partner to CCS and WSU students, as they take on public art projects in the city, be a  place where Detroit residents can gather to discuss art, politics, community projects, or anything at all.  Civic engagement needs to be a major component of the DIA's purpose, as it sits in the center of a city that is desperately attempting to become re-engaged!

I'm not sure if Detroiters realize what an ally they could have in the DIA.  But if they do, I urge them to vote about it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

New Semester, New Internship

Some time has passed from my last entry and a lot of things have happened.

Most notably, I am back in Florida and three weeks into the semester.

Also, I have yet another internship (now called a "practicum" for reasons I don't quite understand). This time around, I'm at the Florida Museum of Natural History (or, FLMNH), working in the education department, developing programs for seniors and adults. I am completely thrilled with this assignment. I have had programming experience in the past, so this project seems totally accessible to me-- yet I've never programmed for adults, so it's new and challenging. In short, I'm stoked.

In other happenings, one of my intern projects from the Detroit Institute of Arts is now in full swing. DIA: Inside|Out has been featured in the Detroit Free Press, Canadian Press, CBC, Detroit News, Metro Times, USA Today, Crain's Detroit Business, and!

That Canadian Press article was also featured in a dorky professional newsletter that I get, called Dispatches from the Future of Museums.  It's actually one of my favorite museum news sources, so I was really excited to see the project featured there.

Inside|Out seems to be getting a great reaction from the public, but really, how could it not? I've had several friends back in the Detroit area tell me about various paintings that they have seen around town.

It's been so rewarding to see (even if it's from a distance) this project come to fruition and be so successful. I'm really happy with the way the paintings and labels turned out. For a while, it looked as if the labels would be cluttered with corporate sponsors' logos, or be made of low-quality materials... but they look fantastic! I'm really glad that our committee held their ground with that issue.

All 40 reproductions should be installed by the middle of September, but a bunch of them are already in place-- including one on everyone's favorite Italian restaurant.  Here are a few shots of our little piece of the DIA (click on any one of them to enlarge):

The Fruit Vendor

The painting is located right next to our kitchen door

Though this photo is reminiscent of a "Where's Waldo" book, the painting is still visible.  Can you find it?

A map of all the locations and artworks can be found here.  And the DIA website, of course, has a little feature on it as well.

More photos of the various paintings can also be found at the Inside|Out flickr site.

I can only hope that my current internship will pan out to be as rewarding and educational as my time at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Already, I think this practicum was a good choice for me. I was wavering back and forth about what classes to take this fall, and when I had one schedule slot left to fill, I didn't want to settle for a course that wasn't of great interest to me. So, I decided to go a different route and spend 9 hours / week at the Florida Museum of Natural History. From the few meetings I've had, and the bit of initial research that I've done, I can tell that this will be 3 credits well spent.

Certainly, the FLMNH differs from the DIA in many ways, including content, size, location, and budget. Yet, I can already see many similarities in the general operations and some of the challenges that have been discussed-- many of which I think are universal among museums of all kinds.

So this just leaves me wondering... when will we be installing these in surprising locations around Gainesville?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Formative Evaluations

My last project at the DIA was just as fun and interesting as everything else I had been working on all summer, and I'm a little disappointed that I didn't have more time to get involved with it.

Museum evaluation is actually very interesting to me.  I like to know how the visitors perceive the museum-- is it meeting their needs?  Their expectations?  Are they enjoying themselves?  Are they actually learning anything?  Is our message being received by the public?  And I find evaluation to be tied very closely to education, as the answers to the above questions are generally addressed by an educator.

The DIA appears to take evaluation very seriously.  They have their own evaluation department that works with many areas of the museum (staff engagement surveys to membership evaluations and visitor surveys). 

My last project involved formative evaluations of some labels for an upcoming exhibition called, "Fakes, Forgeries, and Mysteries".  I wish I were going to be in town for it-- it sounds pretty cool. 

The DIA actually tests every label before it goes up on the wall.  More specifically, they test interpretive labels and texts.  Those labels that just describe the artwork don't really change.  I love this.  I love the idea of presenting the draft of the label to the public, asking if the text works for them.  It just makes so much sense.  And honestly, it's not that much work.  I know it sounds really labor intensive to test every single label, but it's just not that bad.

All of the necessary supplies for label evaluations

Each draft label is printed out on regular paper and taped to a wall in the museum (frankly, in the scope of this entire project, I was most nervous about taping things to the walls of the DIA) and then 10 visitors are asked to read the label(s) and answer some questions about what they read.  Generally, 2 labels are tested each time so it goes pretty quickly.

The draft label on the wall, along with sample artworks

For two days, I was charged with standing near the Rivera Court, temporarily mounting the draft labels, and interviewing 10 people per day about their thoughts on the texts.  I really liked it.

To some, I'm sure this sounds like a painful task, but I really enjoyed for a couple of reasons.  First, I got to talk to visitors.  I love talking to visitors.  A buddy and colleague of mine, who works at another museum said, "I take my employee badge off when I walk through the galleries so no one will ask me anything".  We could not be more different in that respect.  In his defense, he's only been working at his current museum for a few months, so he doesn't really have the knowledge base to feel comfortable answering visitors' questions.  I, on the other hand, have been coming to the DIA for the better part of my lifetime and can tell you where the bathrooms are without blinking.

As a "prize" for participating, each visitor gets a postcard of an artwork in the DIA.

One of my "hobbies" while at the DIA this summer, was to walk around the galleries when I had some down time, and listen to people's conversations.  It sounds creepy, but I'm interested in what they are saying about the art and about the museum.  I like listening to how adults talk about art with kids, and how people engage with each other in conversations about art.

So it was a real treat for me to stand in the hallway and ask visitors questions.  Plus, I was able to give directions to elevators and bathrooms all day.

The other thing I liked about this project was seeing the results.  Because each label is only read and evaluated by 10 people, it's possible to see the results very quickly.  For example, after about 6 interviews, I was able to find a pattern and see that people had trouble understanding the third paragraph of a certain label. 

It's instant evaluation gratification and I loved it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Pan Asian Cuisine, Formative Evaluations, Recommendations, and 20-Something Hipsters

Over jalapeno sake and Korean food, I was told that the DIA's Executive Vice President had been given the recommendation to hire me as soon as I graduate.

I spent much of last night, before my last day on the job, wondering if I had done any good.  In my last post, I mentioned the projects I completed and spoke about their value to the organization, but I was still wondering whether or not I had actually done a good job.

So I guess that answers that.

Larry and Michelle took me to lunch today and I really enjoyed it.  I feel particularly invested in the 125th Anniversary's DIA: Inside Out, so it was nice to have lunch with the rest of the team before I leave.

Larry had very complimentary things to say about my work and mentioned that he told the EVP that she should hire me as soon as I'm done with school.  After which he said, "Wait... when are you done with school?"  A year and a half seems like a long time for the DIA to wait, but I suppose it's not unheard of.  On top of the fact that I am fantastic, there is another reason why the DIA is interested in hiring me (and people like me).  Larry spoke briefly about an initiative called the 15/15 project (or something like that), which aims to add 1,500 young, college educated, Detroit residents (living around the cultural center and Wayne State University) to the DIA's membership.

So, all of a sudden, hip 20-somethings are the DIA's target demographic.

(This revelation was followed by Larry asking how old I am (24) and then asking my feelings about Andy Warhol, contemporary art, and Damien Hirst.  It feels kind of nice to be a target demographic-- suddenly, everyone is interested in my thoughts on things.)

To target this demographic, the DIA really needs to have some 20-somethings on staff, which is the other big reason why Larry was so willing to recommend me.

Interestingly, I think that a large percentage of the DIA's visitors are already local 20-somethings.  While they may not actually be members, I have noticed a lot of people my age wandering around the museum on a daily basis.  In fact, yesterday, I was doing some more formative evaluations for an upcoming exhibition and more than half of the people I spoke with were younger people, and young couples seemed to be the largest demographic I saw all day.  This is purely anecdotal evidence, of course, but it seems to me that the 20-something Detroiters are already interested in the DIA, but perhaps they are not being cultivated for memberships.

So that was my last day at the DIA;  Asian food, recommendations, formative evaluations, and hipsters.

Except that I don't really think this is my last day, so much as it is my last "official" day-- perhaps my last day in the building, but I don't think it's my last day at work.

There are two projects that remain unfinished:

1.) DIA: Inside Out
Inside Out is a major undertaking and I have offered to help Michelle with emails and phone calls in any way that I can.  I made contacts and established relationships with several Detroit-area businesses and Downtown Development Authorities, and while I have given them all of Michelle's information, I was their primary contact until now, so I will continue to field any of their questions and concerns about the project, as they arise.  And Michelle has offered to keep my updated on the overall progress of the project.  As I said, I am very invested in this project and I would like to continue to be a small part of its realization.

2.) AAMD Maps
The data for the maps has been sent off to the AAMD.  But, of course, it will take some time for the fellow at the AAMD to process the information and generate the maps.  I expect that he will have some questions about the way I broke down the information, or some organizations' addresses, or Canadian postal codes, or any number of other things before the maps can be completed and I have been the only person working on this project, so it seems silly and ill-advised to suddenly dump it on someone else's desk.  I am still in contact with the AAMD, and will continue to be their primary contact until the maps are complete and in Sondra's hands.

An intern's work is never done.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Inside Out

I'm in the last days of my internship and I've been pretty busy, trying to tie up all of the loose ends in each of my three projects.  Today, I'm entering the last bit of data for the AAMD Maps and I hope to have everything sent off to the AAMD by this afternoon.  I'm also giving all of my program synopsis sheets one last proof-read before I print them off.

And much more exciting, we finally picked a name for the 125th Anniversary Project!  Yesterday, we were supposed to have a committee meeting but Michelle was out, buttering up some of our prospective locations and Courtney was off working on the construction of the frames, so that left Larry and I as the only two in the office.  So Larry and I sat in his office, discussing the general progress of the project and my part in it, when he finally said, "Alright, we need a name for this thing-- what do you think?"

We had a meeting with the marketing department last week that involved a lively brainstorming session to come up with names for the project.  Some were better than others.  A few of the rejects were:
Drive By Art
(Not such a great image in Detroit)
Severe Weather Art
(Which started as Art in the Sun, but then became a play on the tornados we've been having all summer)
Art Attack
(Which I actually really liked)

The list of ones we liked was pretty long, but in the end, it was Larry and I that selected the offical name for the project:

DIA: Inside Out

The runner up was a name that I actually coined: Off The Wall.  But Larry pointed out that we're actually putting these paintings on walls, so it's not such a great play on words.

Either way, I love the name we came up with and I was thrilled to play such a large role in selecting it.  I might not be around to see the paintings go up, but when I read about it in the paper, I'll know that they're using a name I helped select-- and that's just as satisfying.

On that same note, I will not be around to see the paintings be installed because my internship is (sadly) coming to an end on Friday.  Inside Out is far from finished, so Larry has asked that I find another intern (or two or three) to replace myself on the project (he even suggested that I conduct inverviews!), so I submitted the resume of a former classmate from CMU (Fire Up!), put a note on the Emerging Museum Professionals Facebook page and asked a former prof to email the offer to his students.

The fact that I need to replace myself at the DIA seems to go against most of what I read this weekend in the New York Times.  The article talks mainly about the notion that interns should not be abused and worked to the bone without receiving "payment" of some kind, be it college credit, a stipend, etc.

The article states that:
In April, the Obama administration issued a fact sheet listing six criteria aimed at preventing employers from violating the Fair Labor Standards Act with their unpaid internship programs. Among the stipulations: that the training the intern receives must be similar to training that can be obtained in an educational setting, that unpaid interns don’t displace a paid employee, and that the employer does not derive any “benefit” from the intern’s work.
Ok, so...

Training similar to that of an educational setting:  Check.
Must not replace a paid employee: Check.
Employer does not derive any "benefit" from the intern's work: Ummm...

What exactly do they mean by "benefit"?  While at the DIA, I did a lot of things that I think were helpful to the organization.  I wrote up program synopses that can be included in donor packets and grant proposals, I entered a ton of data into the AAMD database for mapping our community outreach-- which will be useful in our upcoming millage campaign, and I secured several locations for DIA: Inside Out, which I also helped name.

Last night, I was explaining to my dad that while these things were helpful, my absence after Friday will not be noticeable... until I thought about Larry's request.  Perhaps I did provide a measurable benefit to the DIA.  Without knowing Obama's definition of "benefit", it's hard to say.  But let me say this, I do not feel cheated or used by the DIA in any capacity.  I am incredibly proud to say that I played a beneficial role in the success of a museum that I love dearly.

And I didn't even have to pay $42,500 to do it. 
(Seriously, read that article!)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Art Camp in Pictures

I took a bunch of pictures at Art Camp last week and have been meaning to post them, so here they are, in all of their ridiculous, messy glory:

Creating creatures and environments

Painting pink penguins

Chatting with Mr. Byron

This fold-out chalkboard divides the two studios.  Cool.

A giraffe in Africa

Mixing colors can get messy...

 Thank goodness we have plenty of aprons to go around!

Working hard on her imaginary roller coaster

It all culminates with an art show for parents and family on day 5

Parents, admiring their students' work

Learn more about the DIA's summer art camps and see pictures from better photographers than myself at and

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Drama with the Custer Flag

It's why we pay lawyers to represent us in court and doctors to cure what ails us and exterminators to take care of those ants that keep coming back.

We trust these people to take care of our needs because they are skilled in their professions and are more or less experts at what they do.  They have a mastery of a profession that others do not.

So why are museums so freely criticized by those who do not understand the laws and processes surrounding museum operations?

I think a lot of it has to do with the idea that museums hold the public's objects and promises to take care of them... forever.  On the one hand, I am pleased when the public feels a sense of ownership for the objects in the museum.  On the other hand, I hate it when the people feeling ownership are completely illogical.

I think it must be common knowledge that people who rant on message boards and leave irate comments IN ALL CAPS at the bottom of web articles are not people to be reasoned with.  But darn it if I won't try!

This rant stems from a civil war (or, "war of northern aggression", as I've learned it's called down in Florida) flag that has ties to Custer (from Monroe, MI) and is owned by the DIA... but now the museum has plans to sell it.

The flag, complete with commemorative Custer illustration.

So, here's the story:
On June 25, 1876,  George Armstrong Custer, the pride of Monroe, led the 7th Cavalry into battle against the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne near the Little Bighorn River in Montana. It was not, shall we say, Custer’s finest hour. All 210 men under his immediate command died in the massacre. So did Custer.

As a burial detail surveyed the carnage a few days later, Sgt. Ferdinand Culbertson discovered a tattered swallow-tail American flag, known as a guidon, hidden beneath a dead soldier. He picked it up, folded it and squeezed it into his pocket. Four years later, according to an 1895 Free Press report headlined “Memento of a Massacre,” the first written document of the flag’s history, Culbertson gave it to Rose Fowler, whose husband was a military man. After Mr. Fowler died, his wife married another soldier and retired to southwest Detroit.
Eventually, Rose sold the flag to the DIA for about $50.  Now, the DIA has decided to put the flag up for auction at Sotherby's, where they expect it will sell for somewhere between 2 and 5 million dollars.

Currently, the DIA's collections budget (their budget for buying new art) is about $3 million.  If the flag sold for the expected amount, it could more than double that budget.

Fantastic, right?

Well, some people aren't so thrilled and they're even writing goofy letters to the editor about it.

There are so many ridiculous things in this article, I don't even know where to start...

"This isn't a piece of surplus artwork; this a priceless piece of history"
Exactly.  It's not art!  I agree that the flag has value, but so does all of the "surplus" art in the museum.  The flag doesn't fit within the mission or collections policy, so it simply has no place in the DIA.  There are no civil war historians on staff, thus there is no one to interpret the work.  There are no other civil war objects in the collection, thus there is no context in which to display it.  Should the flag remain in the DIA, it will stay in storage; unseen and unexplained.  Forever.

"give the people of Michigan time to donate and raise money so that the flag could stay here"
Seriously?  There have been countless fundraising campaigns over the years to support the DIA.  Did you donate then?  At the risk of sounding cliche, I will ask, given the economic troubles in Michigan at the moment, is raising $5 million to keep a single flag really at the top of everyone's priority list?

"I highly doubt that the soldier who gave his life protecting this flag had this in mind as he tucked it under his body."
Well, I guess we'll never know.  An art historian probably can't tell you much about the circumstances under which this flag was salvaged.

I know I'm playing the devil's advocate here. I mean, I worked at a historical museum for several years. I am not one to try and devalue historical objects. However, historical objects belong in historical museums, with experts than can interpret them correctly.

"Imagine if this flag ends up in Russia, China or the Middle East"
Wait... what?  Is this guy for real?

On other message boards and comment threads, people are all up in arms about the idea that there may be blood on the flag.  I've seen a lot of civil war flags (our historical museum had a hugely impressive collection of them) and many of them do have blood, dirt, grass stains, etc. from the battles-- so it is very possible that this flag does indeed have some blood on it.
So here's what people are saying about that:

"If this is Native American blood, wouldn't this fall under the various repatriation acts that require the flag to be returned to Native American tribes involved with the battle?"
Now, I don't claim to be a NAGPRA expert, but I know what the acronym stands for, so I feel that qualifies me enough to comment on this.  The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act exists to (rightfully) protect Native American graves, remains, and funerary and religious artifacts.  I don't believe that blood spattered on a flag qualifies as any of those things.

"If this is the blood of an American soldier, shouldn't it be returned to the family of the soldier who died possessing it?"
We don't know who that soldier was.  We only know who picked it up and put it in his pocket-- and that guy willingly donated it to Rose, who willingly sold it to the DIA for $50.  Why is nobody mad at Rose Fowler?  There was no DIA curator at the battle of Little Bighorn, going around and ripping flags out from under fallen soldiers. 

"If this was a flag used during a U.S. military operation, isn't it the property of the U.S. government?"
I can't say for certain that the flag was not, at one time, government property.  What I do know is that enough time has passed that the DIA does legally own the flag and can do with it what they please.

There are also many comments lamenting the sale as the DIA's "shameful" way to "make a buck".  I know I don't need to say this to any of my peers, but the money earned in the auction of the flag will not pay anyone's salary, nor will it keep the lights on in the galleries.  That money will be used exclusively for the purchase of great art-- art that will enrich the DIA's collection and serve the museum's mission of "creating experiences that help visitors find personal meaning in art".

The value of this flag comes from the story it can tell-- yet that story will not be heard and meaning will not be garnered if it remains in storage at the DIA.


Yes, yes, I know. Some of my peers may be thinking, "Jess, you're an educator... why are you always ranting about accession numbers, relative humidity, exhibition planning and other things that are outside your chosen realm of museum work?"

Well the answer is that I simply enjoy museums as a whole. I see most functions of the museum as being interrelated. If the art is not cared for and understood, then how can I be expected to educate the public about it? What do I say when a kid asks me, "Why is it so cold in here?" or "What are those little numbers for?" or "Why can't we touch anything?" I think it's important to know about all aspects of the museum if I am to speak confidently as an educator and representative of the museum.

On that note; today I was working with some labels.

As a part of the 125th Anniversary Project, labels need to be fabricated to accompany the repro paintings that will be installed around Metro-Detroit. Thus, I was charged with making a draft of the text for these labels (which will later be approved by a curator).

We have selected 40 paintings to be reproduced, so Michelle and I went into the museum's database (The Museum System, or TMS-- which I must say, is a lot cooler than ARGUS, which is what I used at the history museum) and printed out the information on each of our 40 pieces. This document contains all of the information that one would find on a wall label, but it's in a much different format. So my job today was to reformat all of the information into labels that mimic those used in the actual DIA galleries.

This would have been fine, if I had any idea what format the DIA uses for their labels. I looked on our website and found nothing, so I had to sneak down into the galleries. The DIA is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so all of the lights were off, and the galleries were technically "closed", but I have a little ID badge that says "Staff" so just let them try and stop me!

I managed to snap a quick picture of the first label I saw. It was for this work of art:

I've come to really love this painting over the last two months. I don't recall ever seeing it before, but now I spend a few minutes looking at it every day as I wait for the elevator. I can see it from the third floor balcony and it has grown on me.

Anyway, I used this label as a template, eliminating the interpretive text below the tombstone information.

It's not a pretty picture, but it served the purpose of showing me how to format my labels. I thought I was being pretty clever.

So with my example established, I began rearranging the information about each of the 40 paintings. As I was going through the list, I was struck by a few entries that I found particularly interesting.

The first piece ever accessioned by the DIA (Detroit Museum of Art, at the time) was Reading the Story of Oenone, 1883

The accession number is 83.1... which means the museum bought the painting the same year it was made. What was so great about this painting that the DIA decided this is what will start their collection? And why not a great classic masterpiece? Why a contemporary (for the time) piece? I find this very interesting.

There were several others that the DIA bought shortly after their completion.

A Day in June was purchased in 1917, just four years after it was made. I can't help but think that perhaps the Detroit Museum of Art began as a rather progressive institution, willing to invest in controversial impressionist paintings and contemporary artists.

Every art history student I've spoken to hates this painting:

But it's a Detroit treasure. Visitors love it and it may very well be the most visited and most recognized painting in the museum. I think its only competition would be the Van Gogh self portrait. So I was a little surprised that it was only accessioned in 1954. That seems so recent! As a citizen that has patronized the DIA for many years, it is difficult to fathom that The Nut Gatherers has not always been at the DIA. I mean, there was a time in my parents' lifetime when they could not go see the Nut Gatherers. I mean... my dad would have been 2 years old when it was accessioned, but still!

In the early 90's, it seems like a there was a change in the collections policy. Granted, I am looking at an extremely small sample from the collections database, but around 1993, suddenly the credit lines (list of people who gave money to purchase-or donated--an artwork) grew from one or two lines to some that are a whopping 15 lines of text! Dozens and dozens of donors are suddenly being listed on labels.

I have a theory on this.

Perhaps, as the museum's collections policy became more refined, the DIA began to deaccession donated works and sell them (of course, putting the resulting funds into an account exclusively for the purchase of more art). As the account was used to pay for new art, ALL of the names of ALL of the people who contributed must then be present on the label.

Of the 40 works on this list, those with the longest credits were accessioned in 1977, 1993, 1995, and 2002.  To me, that points to a more recent change in the collections policy and some deaccessioning and redistribution of funds.

And speaking of  deaccessioning and redistribution of funds... have you heard about the drama with the Custer flag?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mummies and Daddies

For Fathers Day this year, I took my dad to the Detroit Science Center to see The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato.
Sure, he drove… and paid… but it was my idea, so I’m still saying that I “took” him there.

The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato is a traveling exhibition by The Detroit Science Center and The Accidental Mummies Touring Company LLC, along with Manuel Hernandez/Firma Culturato. The exhibition will begin touring nationally after its initial stint in Detroit. It features 36 accidental mummies from the Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato. While there is an entire museum in Mexico that is dedicated to their care, this is the first time that any of the mummies have ever been seen outside of Mexico. The exhibition opened in Detroit in October of 2009 and will begin touring before the end of 2010 until 2012.

The Detroit Science Center is directly across the street from the Detroit Institute of Arts. Every day, as I am leaving work and driving up John R, I am taunted by the creepy yet exciting posters and flags that hang around the science center. I have wanted to see this exhibition since I came back to Detroit in May!

After all of that hype, I was not disappointed.

I love mummies. I have loved mummies for as long as I can remember. As I kid, I had giant (taller than me, at the time) cardboard books about Egyptian mummies, books about the bog mummies, sarcophagus pencil cases, mummy activity books, King Tut masks, huge inflatable mummies, and I even made a canopic jar in art class (I was a weird kid but my parents supported my interests). So when the Guanajuato mummies came to town, I was ready!

I was told not to take pictures inside the exhibition, so being the respectful museum professional that I am, I urge you to go to and see the exhibition photos.  They're better than what I would get with my camera anyway.

My dad has been to lots of museums with me and has seen the great and the not-so-great exhibitions, but we were both floored by the first gallery and found the rest of the exhibition equally as impressive and enjoyable.

I was impressed by several things:

1.) The respect with which the mummies were displayed.  It's a tough thing to display deceased human beings.  It even sounds weird as I'm typing it... "display".  But the Science Center did a nice job with it.  They weren't on rotating platforms or set up to look like they were playing poker with each other.  The displays were simple, informational, and still engrossing.

2.) The design of the exhibition.  The first room, made to look like the cemetery in which they were found, was simply fantastic.  Being the nerd that I am, I thought to myself, "I bet the exhibits department had a ball fabricating this!"  The second room was the more simple, respectful display, and the third was made to look like a research lab-- complete with CT scanner and video of research methods and forensic facial reconstruction.  That was my dad's favorite part. 

3.) The interpretive texts.  Each panel was in English and Spanish and they were all well written.  They provided information that was easy to understand, and served as a valuable reference while we were in the exhibition.  Dad and I even went back to a few text panels in previous galleries to double check our facts.  It is unusual for me read every text panel in an exhibition, but it's also unusual for every text panel to be informative and useful.

I was also less-than-impressed with some others:

1.) Inventive histories.  This was a tricky one for me, and I'm still trying to decide what I think.  While the text panels about how accidental mummification occurs, Mexican history, etc., were very well done, I had an issue with some of the "stories" inside the cases with the mummies.  Many of the stories seemed to be fabricated with the intent of tying these mummies in with some middle school social studies.  A lame attempt to comply with the GLCEs and HSCEs.  I saw right through it.  These stories said things like, "This is a mummy of a woman who died in 1850.  Women often played music for Spanish settlers around that time.  This woman many have played music for Spanish settlers."  Really?  I mean... really?  This poor woman may have been the most talented chef in town and lived her entire life without touching a musical instrument... but because she is a woman, and the Science Center is desperate to hit those Social Studies GLCEs, suddenly she played guitar for Spanish settlers.  That irked me a little bit.

2.) Dumb parents.  This is not the Science Center's fault, but when Dad and I were reaching the end of the exhibition, I suddenly heard a blood curdling scream from the entrance.  It was clearly a terrified child, discovering a mummy.  These accidental mummies became mummified because the cement of the mausoleum wicked the moisture out of their bodies.  When bodies dry out like this, the mouth often opens.  Thus, almost every mummy looked like it was screaming.  To a kid, that could be pretty intense.  I've already touched on my lifelong affection for mummies... but I'm not sure how I would have reacted to a "screaming" mummy when I was young.  It's tough to say.  I mean, I really liked mummies.  Anyway, perhaps the visitor services rep should have advised this parent that this exhibition is not for children, but I think it's really the parent's decision-- and this parent made the wrong one.

However, those two minor issues did not noticeably detract from my overall enjoyment of the exhibition.

When I was taking my first undergrad course in museum studies (Introduction to Museum Work), my advisor (and professor), Lynn Fauver told us, "Taking this course will ruin any museum visit you have from now on."  He seemed to think that knowing about museums would suck the enjoyment out of the visit.  I have now come to disagree.  I really liked Lynn.  He was a great and fair advisor, an enthralling lecturer and he was incredibly knowledgeable about the museum field.  But in this respect, I think he's full of it.

The more I learn about museum work, the more I am able to enjoy a museum visit on multiple levels.  I am excited to see the exhibition itself, but I am also excited to see how it was produced and what choices the museum staff made.  It's gotten to the point where I just want to know everything I can about how and why museums do what they do.  I am able to walk into an exhibition like The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato and be awestruck by the mummies-- imagining their stories, thinking about the science of mummification, looking at their clothing, etc.-- while also checking the temperature and RH inside the cases, looking at the mounting hardware, lighting, layout, interpretive texts, and so on. 

I am honestly and truly interested in all aspects of an exhibition like that.  I may be alone on this, but knowing there is 44% RH inside of the mummy's case does not ruin the magic for me.  (Sidebar: Some mummies were displayed laying on their backs, while others were mounted upright.  Those laying down had 23-26 RH in the case, while the upright ones had 44-46 RH in their cases.  My theory is that those who were laying down were so fragile that not only could they not be mounted in an upright position, but that they also needed drier conditions.  Thoughts?)

So, if you like sausage and you respect the law, you shouldn't watch either one being made.  Instead, spend your day at a museum.  You'll like that better, I promise.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mummies aren’t real and neither is Santa Claus!

Today was Art ‘n Action Camp for 5 – 8 year olds. Actually, camp goes all week long, but today was the first chance I had to sit in and watch. Tomorrow, I hope to observe the older kids (9 – 12) at Camp Art Exploration.

For as loud and ridiculous as this morning was, it turned out to be a lot of fun! I really like the methods that Miss LaVern and Miss Liz use to run their classroom. And it does run very much like a classroom. There is a certain amount of discipline necessary in a room with 11 5-8 year olds, but I think the idea is to keep the atmosphere fun and light, at which Liz and LaVern are highly skilled. I did have to laugh at one point, when a little boy wouldn’t stop rocking his stool back and forth (risking a head injury) Miss LaVern simply confiscated his stool and let him stand for the next few minutes. It seemed a little stern for “art camp” but I understand that if the instructors aren’t able to project some aura of authority, then chaos will ensue.

I came to camp a little late, so as I was arriving, the group was finishing up one project and getting ready to take a museum tour.

Back when I worked at the historical museum, I spent much of my usual day giving 4th graders an “orientation” (or snorientation… borientation… as we would sometimes call them) to the museum. The orientation included a recitation of the rules of the museum—though we weren’t supposed to call them “rules” so much as “guidelines”. Anyway, sometimes kids would listen intently… and other times I was practically peeling them off the walls while I ran through my 2 minute speech. It was not the most effective way to communicate museum behavior to the kids, but it was the most efficient. And on days when groups were coming in every 15 minutes… efficiency is next to godliness. I think I can still recite it in my sleep.

But I liked the way Miss Liz prepared the campers for their gallery visit. While they were seated at their tables, she said that we would be going into the museum and asked, “What are some things you think might be important in the museum?” Immediately, the kids came up with “Don’t run and scream!”, “Stay with the group”, and “Don’t touch anything”. For the record, these were the three things that I spent 2 minutes explaining every day at the historical museum. These exact 3 things. But the kids came up with them right off the bat. It was great. And because they came up with them on their own and Liz wrote them on the board, they seemed to remember them pretty well. I should have timed how long it took the campers to come up with those rules. I bet it was less than 2 minutes.

While I observed this, I took a moment of silence to reflect on all of the snorientations happening at the historical museum today. I still have good friends working there, and I know they appreciate a well presented orientation.

Speaking of the historical museum; I can remember some of the most frequently asked questions I heard over my 2.5 year tenure there…

1.) Where’s the bathroom?
2.) How do I pay for parking?
3.) Do you have dinosaurs?

Well, #3 reared its ugly head again today! After the list of rules, the next comment was, “Are we going to see dinosaurs??” To which Liz said, “There aren’t any dinosaurs… but we have mummies… and mummies are… umm… old… like dinosaurs… kind of.” Nice recovery Miss Liz.

So of course, our second stop (after petting Artie) was the Egyptian exhibition. I heard a kid yell “Mummies aren’t real and neither is Santa Claus!” before he stopped dead in front of the case with the mummy. “Is there a person in there??”, he asked me. I pointed to the accompanying X-ray, which clearly shows the skeleton within the wrappings, and he was awestruck. I managed to impress an 8 year old, and I felt SO cool. Though I’m not sure there was much I could do about his opinion of St. Nick.

When we got back to the studio, I was then able to observe the kids do a project from start to finish. It was really interesting and I liked the way LaVern presented the project.

The kids would be making family photo albums. But the books were really cool—they were made of all kinds of paper and cut into crazy shapes and stuff. LaVern showed the kids a few examples of books that others had made, including some by herself and Liz. After which she said, “You don’t have to do what Miss Liz and I do. You probably have other ideas, but we are here to help you.”

Miss LaVern

I had mentioned before that these workshops provide structure with room for creativity, and I think LaVern’s comment really exemplified the teaching philosophy of the DIA art studio. By the time camp was over for the day, photo albums were taking the shapes of sharks, stars, and rocket ships of all colors, sizes and arrangements. Yet they were all still photo albums. Perfect.

Making memory boxes

For this age range, attention span is always an issue. To combat this, each segment of camp is only about 15 or 20 minutes. A 15 minute museum tour, followed by a 20 minute snack time / run around the lawn, then 20 minutes to finish yesterday’s project and another 15 or 20 to get started on the photo albums, and so on. It keeps the kids from getting burnt out on any one project, and also—kids work fast. They don’t usually take much time to sit and consider their project. If you put paper and scissors in their hands, they are cutting immediately. 20 minutes is often all they need to complete a project.

Havin' a great time at art camp
(Photos can also be found at

Camp Art ‘n Action is just another example of all the things the DIA is doing right. The kids were having a great time, they were being creative and making some really neat stuff. How much more can you ask for from a 3 hour art camp? I used to do art classes after school at a community center (every Wednesday, I believe) for several years and I remember loving it. But there is such a benefit to doing these kinds of classes IN the museum! It adds another dimension of enjoyment and education to the class.

Well, that and the kids get to be messy and look at mummies. I call that a win.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


During today’s All Staff meeting, Graham was asked a question about how the DIA ranks, nationally. It has often been said that the DIA is one of the top 6 museums in the country.

I have always thought this was an odd phrase—that we aren’t quite in the top five, but we’re better than museums 7-10, so saying we were in the “top ten” didn’t do us enough justice.

To me, it indicated that we were the 6th best museum in the country, on a list of what I imagined to be 100 or so museums.

Not surprisingly, I was wrong.

The DIA is classified as a “universal museum” because our collection spans all space and time. There are 6 “top” universal museums in the country and they are: The Met, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and of course, The Detroit Institute of Arts.

Other museums like The MoMA or the National Gallery are excluded because they are not universal.

These 6 universal museums are not usually ranked, but when they are, it’s on a bias. If you like Impressionist art, then Chicago is #1… but if you like European Art, then the DIA is probably #1, and so on.

Thus, the clout in this phrase is really that we are among the six (as there are only six) best universal museums in the country.

I suppose one could liken it to being a “Big Ten” school—there isn’t School #1 or School #2—they’re all just in the Big Ten.

Actually, that might be a terrible reference. Once football or basketball season takes off, they are very clearly ranked.

Maybe it’s more like American Idol, once contestants reach the top 12 or top 5. Within that group, no one is individually ranked, but they are each one of the 12 best singers in the country.

I wonder if Simon Cowell has ever been to the DIA…

All Staff Meeting

Today I had to be at the museum before 9:00.  I kind of hate being anywhere before 9:00 but it turned out to be well worth the trouble.  It was the All Staff Meeting!

More than 100 DIA employees gathered in the auditorium (which I had never seen before, but is very nice!) to hear the Director and various other managers discuss projects and initiatives within the museum.  I asked how often All Staff Meetings occur and was told that they try to have them quarterly, but that's not always the case.  Either way, I was pleased to be present for this one.

Perimeter Heating Project: Elliott, Museum Operations

We are now in Phase II of the perimeter heating project (I must have missed Phase I), which involved closing a number of galleries on the second floor for repairs to the heating system. Last winter, some galleries with exterior walls had NO heat beyond the forced air system (I don't know enough about heating and cooling to tell you why we need more than forced air heat, but apparently we do). Fortunately, last winter was mild enough that there were few to no complaints from visitors, and of course, the artwork was unharmed.

Elliott, from Operations, attempted to list the second floor galleries that would be closing but admitted to not knowing the official gallery numbers. At this point, he asked for some “audience participation”, saying that he would tell us what is in each gallery, and someone in the audience should yell out the gallery number. It went something like this:

“It’s that gallery with the painting on the ceiling…”
“W 234!”
“It’s got that piece of furniture with all the inlaid stone… umm… it also has The Wedding Dance…”
“W 230!!” “BINGO!!
Ok, nobody yelled out “Bingo”, but I think it would have been appropriate.

After Gallery Number Bingo, Director Graham Beal talked about some stuff that was not on the agenda, but proved to be pretty interesting.

New AAMD Environmental Standards: Graham Beal, Director

The AAMD has decided to relax its environmental standards for galleries. The gold standard for relative humidity levels in the galleries was generally between 40% to 50%. Yet, for various reasons, the range of acceptable RH has been expanded to 40% to 60%.

 I did some quick Internet research and it seems like most museums were already doing this anyway. But now the AAMD is making this the official standard, which really only changes one thing; loans. As Graham explained it, some museums were having trouble acquiring loans because when they would submit a facilities report, their hygrothermograph output would read 56% or something that the loaning institution would find unacceptable. Graham even told stories of institutions submitting a blank hygrothermograph output sheet with a ruled pencil line drawn through the whole thing at 45%. In other words, some museums, desperate for loans, would forge their RH reports. Seriously?

The other benefits of this greater flexibility are that it saves the museum some money, reduces energy consumption and carbon footprints, and generally streamlines the loan process (so people can stop lying!).

Apparently it has been suggested for a while that most works of art will not sustain damage from incremental RH fluctuations, and can thus withstand a greater range. My peers that watched “The Rape of Europa” with me last semester can attest that many works of art that hung out in caves, barns, and other locations without climate control for the duration of WWII were returned to the museums without much (or any) damage. I am not suggesting that galleries be converted to reflect the barn environment in the name of reducing our carbon footprint, but I can certainly see the merit to allowing RH to reach 60% +/- 3.

Graham also noted that it is extremely difficult to retain a consistent RH % in the Midwest (especially in those dry winter months). So this change in the standards will end up saving the DIA quite a bit of money. In the winter the DIA will heat the museum less, thus reducing the need to add humidity to the air; and in the summer we will cool the museum less, thus reducing the need to remove humidity from the air.

During this briefing, a representative from the conservation or registration department stood up and assured the crowd that the collections were not being put at risk in any way by this change and that there simply won’t be much difference to the state collections.

To prove that I’m not making these numbers up, here are some articles I found about the change:

And if any of my information is way off base, I certainly hope that my newest reader, Dixie, will set me straight.

Millage Campaign: Annmarie, Executive Vice President

I mentioned before that the DIA plans to launch a millage campaign in an effort to establish a more stable source of funding for the museum and that the initial poll results for the campaign were overwhelmingly positive.

Today, Annmarie presented a more detailed account of the poll results, which I found very interesting. I was asked not to share the details of the results, but I will discuss one thing that struck me about the poll and that was how many people reported a very positive image of the DIA. In one question, people were asked “Who goes to the DIA” and the common response was “Everyone”. I found this to be so encouraging. In a previous post, I said myself that I recognize museums (art museums, in particular) as having to struggle with that public perception of elitism. I think this just speaks to how many things the DIA is doing RIGHT. There are a lot of words that describe the City of Detroit (resilient, soulful, diverse, historic…) but I don’t think “elite” is one of them. Which is why I was so struck by the apparent perception of the DIA as being the people’s museum—a place where everyone goes. I think that this is a perception that most (all?) museums strive for and I am just so happy to see the community embrace the DIA as their own, just as I have for so many years.

But then again, I claimed ownership of Lake St. Clair when I was in preschool so I’m not sure I’m the best barometer of the community’s investment.  I get attached easily.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"I think we've got something here..."

That's what Larry said when he saw everyone's reaction to our sample repro of Watson and the Shark.

People were coming from all over the third floor to check it out.  Even Graham Beal stopped in for a moment to take it in.  I'm beginning to gather that he is a man of few words, but he looked impressed.

People were doing double-takes as they walked past the conference room and saw a framed replica of Watson, just sitting on the table.  The real painting is not on display at the moment, so several people thought we toted it up to the third floor for the afternoon.  That's how convincing it is.

Sharing this sample with the rest of the staff did a lot for our cause.  It really seemed to get everyone excited about the project and it may have even converted a few skeptics.

My iPhone photo doesn't quite do it justice, but what we have here is a very high quality reproduction of one of the DIA's most well-known paintings.

I was so excited, I couldn't even wait for Larry to get out of the frame.  Hi Larry.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

5 Weeks in Review

At a little past the halfway point of my internship, I thought I would give a rundown of the projects with which I’m engaged.

1. AAMD Mapping

Project Summary:  I am compiling data about the DIA's outreach efforts or "partners", to be sent to the AAMD and turned into a map.  Partners can include schools, churches, colleges / universities, businesses, community / cultural organizations, senior groups, libraries, and youth groups.  Each partner will be represented by a colored dot on the map.  Maps zoom in and out to include multiple or individual states, counties, cities, or congressional districts.  Maps like this will be useful in millage and other funding campaigns to illustrate the museum's reach.

Department / Staff Collaboration:  Trickled down to Sandra from Graham Beal (Director).  Data has come from Lisa Rezin (Group Sales) and Jenny Angell (Student Tours).  I was told to meet with lots of other people, but Lisa and Jenny have proved to be biggest wealth of information.

Status:  I am making data compilations for Fiscal Years 08-09 and 09-10.  Each set of data has 4 components: Group Sales, School Tours, In-Classroom Visits, and Speakers Bureau.  08-09 has 3 of 4 and 09-10 has 2 of 4.  I am hoping to have all of the data entered by next week.

Favorite Elements:  Data entry can be mind numbing, but it's interesting to see (even before the map has been created) the areas that utilize the DIA the most.  I have been surprised by some of the results, so far.  Though, I am delighted about how many DPS visits the DIA has had in the last two fiscal years.

Challenges:  I had a lot of dead-end meetings before finding the people who had the information I needed.  Also, many (400+) schools on one list were without zip codes, so I had to look up each individual zip code for every school on that list.  That was less than riveting.  And data entry can be mind numbing.

Academic / Professional Relevance:  I have improved my skills with Microsoft Excel ten fold.  Other than that, I have found it interesting to see which programs touch people in different parts of Michigan (and beyond).  Mostly, this project has given me some insight into the kinds of groups a museum may cater to.  I also learned just how many commercial and corporate involvements museums have.  I think I was a bit naive to that before I saw all of the groups from the last two years and saw what a large percent of groups were corporate events.

2. Program Synopsis

Project Summary: Expanding the existing “Program Matrix” into a format that is more accessible and usable to new hires, development officers, grant writers, donors, and those wishing to learn more about the programs at the DIA. Each program is to be summarized into a one-page document that expresses the value of each program to the community and why these programs should continue to be supported.  At this point, I understand this to be a mostly internal document—in other words, while it will be distributed to donors and such, they will not be in card racks or generally available to the public.

Department / Staff Collaboration: Assigned by Sandra. Guidance from Jennifer Czajkowski (Education – Learning & Interpretation) and David Cherry (Grant Writer). My main resource is the Programs Matrix, compiled by Jennifer Czajkowski, Matt Frye (Marketing), and other staff involved in the Program Audit that took place before my arrival.

Status: 8 Synopsis sheets are complete. I hope to have 7 more done by July 9.

My Favorite Elements: Researching the programs gives me a more in-depth understanding of the programs at the museum. Making the case for their overall value and worthiness of funding allows me to think more critically about the program and what elements of the program are most important and relevant to the museum’s constituency.  I like looking at programs that I've never seen before and saying, "Is this any good?  And why?"  This also gives me an excuse to sit in on school tours and other programs (I love watching programs!) in order to form an opinion.  Spoiler alert: They're usually great.

Challenges: No such document has ever been created, beyond the Programs Matrix, thus I have very little to work with in terms of research material. A lot of my information comes from or even Google. When attempting to communicate the value of a program (many of which I have never seen), I often turn to websites like for “customer reviews” to see what visitors are saying about the programs.  I feel awkward bothering people (without a formal survey in my hand) and asking them for their opinions about a program, so I haven't done much of that.

Academic / Professional Relevance:  I think that being able to so closely examine the educational and public programs run by the DIA will provide me a great deal of insight when I am looking to design future programs.  This analysis has also taught me to ask questions of the programs like, "What need is this fulfilling?".  Programs are great, but unless they are filling an educational gap, or answering a call from the community, they are difficult to justify to funders and others outside of the museum.

3. 125th Anniversary

Project Summary:  (I think we might now be calling it "Art on the Move").  Based on a 2007 London project called "The Grand Tour", the purpose of this project is to place "fully submersible" reproductions of the DIA's masterpieces in surprising locations around the greater metro Detroit area.  The reproductions are weatherproof and will be mounted outside, in an effort to bring the DIA's collection to people who might not otherwise see it.

Department / Staff Collaboration:  Larry Baranski (Public Programs) is heading this project, and I am working closely with Michelle Hauske (Public Programs / Registration) to secure locations for the "paintings".

Status:  The sample is complete!  And it looks incredible.  Other than that, I would say the project is about 40% complete.  There is much work to be done and I doubt I will see any of the paintings installed before I leave.

Favorite Elements: Finding connections between the art and the community.  There is something of a tongue-in-cheek element to this project that I absolutely love.  The committee has attempted to match the theme of the artworks to their prospective locations.  For example, I already discussed Syria by the Sea at the old train station, but there are others, such as Watson and the Shark on the Nautical Mile or The Fruit Vendor in the Eastern Market.  I think it's going to look like the paintings escaped from the DIA and went home.

Challenges:  Lots of hoops, lots of delays, little time, little money.  Every time one thing gets settled, five more issues pop up.  Of all things, we actually have to get insured for this project... in case one of the paintings falls off the wall and hurts someone.  Little things like that take some of the initial excitement out of the project.

Academic / Professional Relevance: I've learned quite a lot about the DIA's collection.  I have also been in meetings with donors and witnessed the relationship between the funder and the museum.  As frustrating as it can be, I also see the value in experiencing the bureaucracy that can sometimes slow a project down.  It is encouraging to see the rest of the committee meet these challenges with grace and enthusiasm.  Overall, it has been extremely educational to watch a program like being realized.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Registration and Conservation

You know you’re in the Registrar’s office when there are nomenclature books and #2 pencils everywhere you look.

The Registration department in the DIA was pretty boring. It looks much like the third floor—grey, with cubicles… but more filing cabinets. I’m sure they keep all of the really interesting stuff hidden.

Today, I worked mostly on the 125th Anniversary project. Michelle (a registration intern and part-time Public Programs staffer) and I took an extended tour of the museum, choosing and eliminating artworks to be reproduced and placed around the greater metro Detroit area. I’ve really enjoyed working on this project. Most of the businesses have been enthusiastic about participating—which is a good start—and it’s been fun to discuss the paintings and why they should go where. It’s also been interesting to be in on planning the assembly and installation (selecting the materials and installation hardware, etc.).  I don’t know much about that kind of thing, which I think is why it’s been so fascinating.

Michelle knows a lot more about art than I do (which isn’t difficult) so I enjoyed touring the galleries with her this afternoon and hearing her thoughts about which paintings are most important, which best represent our collection and why some paintings are better suited for certain areas than others. I can’t wait to audit Intro to Art History next semester… I’ve been faking my way though art museums for far too long.

Michelle also had some other keen insights for me, and answered a few questions I had about the museum. For example, some paintings are under glass, while others are not. I studied these paintings a while, and could not find a pattern. One Renoir is covered, while others are not, etc. Michelle says that this is handled by the Conservation department (not Registration, as I had guessed) and those paintings with glass over them are the paintings most likely to be touched (the Van Goghs!) and those needing extra protection (Degas’ pastels). I was satisfied with that answer for the most part—but I find it hard to believe that the Caravaggios don’t warrant a glass covering.

Yet all of this led me to another question: How many museums have a separate Conservation department?

I had previously thought that a lot of the conservation is handled by the registrar. I have to imagine that in a larger museum, like the DIA, that separate departments are more typical. But I am also wondering if it is more common for museums that have older collections. Perhaps a museum of contemporary art has less need for conservation tactics? Is it that a Caravaggio needs more upkeep and care than a Warhol (at least for the moment)?

I sent an email to University of Florida professor and past Registrar, Dixie Nielson for her opinion. She wrote the book on registration, so I’ll be interested to hear her insights.


Monday, June 7, 2010

The Grand Tour

Good Morning! My name is Jessica. I’m an intern at the Detroit Institute of Arts and I would like to drill some holes in the outside of your building.

This summer, some of my friends are working at museums that they have never visited. I, on the other hand, am working at a museum in which I practically grew up. I think I have the better deal—at least in terms of this project. The DIA’s 125th Anniversary Project (we don’t have a real name for it yet…) is a public art installation project based on London’s 2007 “Grand Tour”.

Essentially, we will be mounting the DIA’s most famous paintings in some of the Detroit area’s most surprising locations.

Places like this:
Michigan Central Station
Yes, really.

Michigan Central Station makes my guts hurt. It’s the visual representation of why people say awful things about Detroit.

It used to be beautiful and ornate and… functional.  Now it is quite simply in ruins.

Interior of the train station, covered in graffiti

For those unfamiliar with this location, Michigan Central Station used to be a large train station, with trains running frequently to major cities like Chicago. It was on par with the great train stations of New York City and had lots of offices (and a hotel, I think?) and other stuff in the large building above the station. Now, every single window is broken.

At first, I was shocked that the committee had chosen to include Michigan Central as a location for this project. Until I saw what painting they had chosen for it.

Syria by the Sea, Frederic Edwin Church (American 1826-1900)

It broke my heart in such a good way. It’s a painting of magnificent ruins.

Syria by the Sea is one of the DIA’s most famous and popular paintings. I have seen it many times, but I had never really considered it until now. It is so completely perfect for Michigan Central Station.

And as Larry (the head of this project committee) pointed out to me, the idea is to place these artworks in surprising locations around the city. Well, I can’t think of any place more surprising than one of the biggest abandoned buildings I have ever seen.

I am also told that people (tourists!) quite frequently visit Michigan Central. The old train station is across the street from an area that is quickly becoming a revitalized area of Detroit—popular and trendy. That strip is home to one of the coolest restaurants in the city, Slows Bar B Q. Interestingly, their logo is a train.

So anyway, I guess people going to that side of town to hit up Slow’s also stop by Michigan Central to take in the ruins. At first, I was kind of appalled by this. But then I remembered how many times I’ve visited the ruins in Rome or Pompeii. While this is not nearly as old… I think it holds some of the same appeal to visitors. So that’s how Michigan Central Station came to be a stop on Detroit’s Grand Tour.

Here's a few shots from London's Grand Tour to give you an idea of what it is:

The rest of the sites are somewhat less surprising. Trendy areas like Downtown Ann Arbor and The Nautical Mile of St. Clair Shores, and Detroit’s Eastern Market are all great locations for these paintings.

So after going through the list of locations and paintings, I began “cold calling” some businesses and honestly, I felt a bit like Oprah.

Everyone in today’s studio audience gets a reproduction of a masterpiece from the DIA’s collection.

EVERYONE gets a painting! Yes, YOU get a painting! YOU get a painting! And YOU get a painting!

My job today was to call all of these locations and tell them that “YOU get a painting!”, or more accurately, “Your location has been scouted and selected by DIA staff as an appropriate site for one of our life-sized reproductions”. Either way, it was fun.

I was surprised by how enthusiastic some of these contacts were. The woman at the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority has been emailing me all afternoon with pictures she’s taken of various places where she wants us to put a painting. I love it!

There are 45 locations in all, and I have a lot more “cold calls” to do, but today’s results have been encouraging.

Now for the boring part—funding it.

We are making “fully submersible” reproductions of our most famous paintings—they can get rained on, exposed to extreme heat and cold, etc. The images of the paintings are going to be printed on a vinyl material (much like any outdoor banner you would see around town) and mounted on a Versatex sheet board. The frames will be made of an ultra-light material called Fypon, which will then be painted with a self-oxidizing gold paint (to make it look 200 years old in about 2 days).

The budget for all of these materials is $11,096. We have a very generous donor (I believe he owns the printing company and is thus printing our repros for the fabulous price of FREE) who has given $12,000 to the project. So he covers all of the production—with $904 left over for lunch.

All we need now is another $8000 for the labor and mounting hardware. Larry says he thinks that he can find a “little pot of money” somewhere in the museum to take care of this. But I really liked what our donor guy said during our meeting. He said, “The original budget ($12000) is all I'm prepared to commit to, but I'm not prepared to let this program not happen." Basically, he is saying that he is willing to use his business contacts to help us out, in addition to the $12,000 he is already giving.

Our donor is one hell of a good guy and I really like his attitude.

All in all, I'm really pleased to be a part of this project. It benefits my hometown, and I think my knowledge of the area is helpful (both to me and the project committee, as they don't have to explain where things are and the demographics of each location, etc,).

Tomorrow I am meeting with the rest of the 125th Anniversary Project committee and I'll be able to see the first sample reproduction!