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.