Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Two Lesser-Known Gems in NYC

In honor of my brother's first winter break home from college, I took him and his girlfriend to the city for some low-cost gallivanting.

We started down on the east side of the Financial District at a free concert, and made our way up to the Asia Society Museum on the upper east side via the Municipal Archives and Superior Court Building.

Although I'd spent some time in the Municipal Archives building at 31 Chambers Street for a research project for the Tenement Museum, I never knew that there was a curated exhibit in the basement featuring treasures from the archives from the 17th through the 20th centuries. After walking down from the 7th floor admiring the building's marble halls, vintage mail shoots and bureaucratic-elegant architecture we literally stumbled upon the exhibit in the basement. Sometimes all you need is a chronological display of fascinating documents and photographs to pass an edifying hour. After marveling over bills of sale and freedom papers for slaves, payments to the administrator of the whipping post, architectural drawing for the original elevated train line and photographs of inmates on Blackwell's Island, it was hard to drag ourselves away.

I'm glad we did because the exhibits at the Asia Society Museum were fantastic. The artifacts and compositions on display in the Muslim Calligraphy exhibit were breathtaking. The exhibit space was quiet, informative, uncluttered. Everything about the exhibit experience was meditative.

In stark contrast, the Art and China's Revolution exhibit carefully constructed the visitor's intellectual experience, providing chronological context and contextual information to an evolving array of artwork created between the 1920s and 1980s in China. I was only temporarily confused by the exhibit because the chronological section was in a different gallery space from the artwork, but everything came together after viewing both sections. The exhibition was fun to view with friends because it sparked conversation about what makes "good art" and whether the meaning of "good art" changes based on cultural context. Highly recommended!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Living History Sojourn

In contrast to the weekly standard's scathing critique of social historians' love of the mundane, Emily Yoffe's Slate article is quite refreshing.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

NMAH Review

This article provides a fascinating perspective on (a particular) public perception of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

As a public historian trained as a social historian, I know how tough it can be to strike a balance between striving for historical context and creating something dramatic and engaging that the public can relate to.

I'm excited to visit the newly renovated NMAH next time I'm in DC!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Thoughts on the History Web

While the web has come of age over the past 4 or 5 years, it seems that many historians and curators are still unsure about what to do with it. Back in 1996, a website with visible text, reasonably-sized images and quality content superimposed on a sane and non-flashy background was a work of genius. Today, the quality scholarly content is still out there, but its creators are tearing their hair out worrying about web 2.0, attracting and holding audiences.

As in all things, purpose is key. Just because the web may be unfamiliar, that is not an excuse to throw critical thought out the window. It's not scary; it's just a new way to reach different audiences. If you are embarking on a new website or updating an old one, ask yourself, who do you want to serve? You need to answer this question first before you can calmly determine how best to attract them.

If your audience is scholarly, then don't feel you need to pretend it is not. I've been amazed at the lack of online humanities journals that engage the capabilities of the web. Even the Journal of the Oral History Society does not employ a format in which audio excerpts can be added to text. This would be an excellent feature to pursue online.

Graduate students struggle daily with the creation of "web exhibits." Unsure whether they are attempting to engage a scholarly or general audience, they agonize over text and images, tone and volume. The web offers something museums have long dreamed about and struggled to create: layers.

Don't despair and lock away your scholarly text. Just connect it through layers to your visitors' first impression of the site. If you want a casual visitor to stop and stay, snag her with a slide-show of click-able images. If you want to know more, go here! Even more? Go here!

Don't be afraid of connecting your site to something in another information dimension. Here's a scholarly paper. Here is the blog to go with it.

The internet is about creating communities. There's no reason to believe that suddenly all communities are the same. Just know who you're looking for and direct them to different experiences of your content.

Because no post would be right without examples, consider the excellent Lost Museum. Here is a site that can be experienced by casual users with a rich online environment to explore. Students can use clues in the exhibit to solve a mystery related to the history of the burning of P.T. Barnum's American Museum. Teacher's can use essays posted in the classroom to teach using the primary sources cataloged in the archive. There's a hook, and then there's layers of true quality content below.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

9/11 Artists Registry

This is a departure from the usual content of this blog, but I want to take an opportunity to share a project I've been involved with for the past 2 years. Today marks the official launch of the Artists Registry at the National September 11 Memorial Museum.

In creating this registry, the Memorial Museum tried to find a creative way to embrace the vast outpouring of heartfelt artwork created in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath. The Registry supports images, mp3s, written material and short video files. It is browse-able by artist name, media, themes and location. Artists can submit up to 12 digital files with accompanying metadata, an artist's statement and resume.

Artists can also choose among a standard "all rights reserved" image license and the six Creative Commons licenses for their work.

I welcome your feedback!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty

Yesterday we took a visit from an out-of-town friend as an excuse to visit two iconic sites located in as close to our own backyard as you can get in the city. On a hazy September day, we joined a ferry-load of Mid-Western and East-Asian tourists on a circle through New York Harbor to Ellis Island and Liberty Island. We left from Liberty State Park in Jersey City. Since I hadn't been on this particular route since I was in elementary school and summer camp, I couldn't recall from where we departed those 12-18 years ago, but I would recommend Liberty State Park as the port of choice to anyone.

Ellis Island ferries depart from the old CRRNJ railroad terminal building on the southern shore of the Morris Canal. The CRRNJ terminal marked the end of the most intense part of the immigration process for many of the eastern and southern European immigrants who came through Ellis Island's peak during its tenure from 1892-1954. Immigrants granted entry through Ellis Island took ferries to the CRRNJ terminal where they boarded trains to destinations throughout the United States. The CRRNJ terminal closed in 1967 when major rail-lines re-routed after use of the terminal rapidly declined. Today, after at 2-year renovation begun in 2005, the terminal is preserved in a near-perfect state of semi-decline. The rail terminal's interior spaces serve as the ticketing, boarding, concessions and security center for the Ellis Island Ferry while its outdoor spaces and platforms stand laced with enough greenery to give the platforms a ghostly look and spark the imagination. Ellis Island is an excellent museum, but the CRRNJ would have to be the capstone of my experience. (The photograph was taken by me of the CRRNJ platforms.)

Ellis Island has benefited from exhibit renovations and excellent scholarly work since I last visited it in the 90s. Highlights included the shipping records on lecterns in the mostly empty Great Hall (see photograph), the historic exhibits in the main building's west wing balancing artifacts, photographs, text and oral history excerpts, and the exhibit of photographs of the abandoned buildings of the complex taken between 1954 and the 1984 restoration.

Ellis Island offers an excellent all-around historical experience. We began our visit with an introductory play that was, despite the cliche, both entertaining and informative. We were then free to browse the exhibits, interact with kiosks containing links to census maps and immigrant databases, spend reflective time in un-crowded architectural spaces and listen to oral history excerpts. Exhibits were appropriately stand-alone but linked well together to form a coherent visitor experience. Ellis Island struck the right balance between interpretation and freedom for imagination.

We ended our visit by riding the ferry to Liberty Island and then back to Liberty State Park. These days with tightened security procedures, the Statue of Liberty offers a much truncated visitor experience. More could be learned by viewing the statue from the deck of the ferry and imagining what it would have felt like to see it after at 6-week trip from Poland in steerage. Watching the other visitors experience the "historic triangle," I felt a renewal of my faith in the power of public history.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Governors Island

A staff summer outing brought me today to Governor's Island, only 800 yards south of Manhattan. Governor's island is the longest serving military base in the the United States, beginning as a fort in 1776 after the British evacuation of New York and continuing to serve different military branches from the Army to the Coast Guard until its decommission in 1996. Later that year, President Clinton designated 22 acres as a National Monument and then in 2002, the United States donated the island to New York City "for public benefit," prohibited the construction of permanent housing or casinos on the island. Currently, the island is managed by the "Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation" with the 22 acre National Monument run the the NPS. See the GIPEC website for more history.
See the NPS Governors Island website for the 2016 Centennial Plan for the park.

GIPEC and the NPS have plans for Governors Island to become a center for history, education, artistic exhibitions, entertainment, fine dining and open space-- in short, everything we've come to expect out of our parks all rolled into one. In many ways, Governors Island is uniquely suited to this kind of multi-purposing as it is not dominated by any single history or wilderness motif. Like all of New York City, Governors Island's only constant is change.

Castle Williams on the island's north side provides a perfect example of the effects of change on a single building. Castle Williams was built in 1812 after the British torched DC. It never saw action as a fort but instead became a prison for confederate soldiers during the Civil War. During World War I and World War II it served as an internal military prison and finally, in the 60s while the Coast Guard resided on the island, the Castle served as a community center and even boasted day care facilities. When you enter the Castle's forboding central enclosure, it is not hard to see why that experiment was short lived. The Coast Guard "brats" had more success using the fort annually as a haunted house on Halloween. Experiencing the Castle prior to any renovation or cleaning, I was reminded once again of the power of the authentic place. It was extremely easy to imagine the dreadful lives of the confederate soldiers, crammed into cells and whipped by the bitter breezes off the Hudson bay, mocked by the cries of the seagulls. Our tour guide enlightened us with two tails of escape-- it was not hard to swim to Manhattan if the opportunity was available, but most soldiers were not so lucky. At the peak of the Civil War, the death toll in both Confederate and Union POW jails was extremely high. See Andersonville National Historic Site and Elmira Prison Camp.

Dominated by Castle Williams and rows of quiet officers' mansions and empty enlisted men's facilities, the entirety of the island had the feel of a haunted college campus. This effect was compounded by the lack of people other than my company group. It will be interesting to see whether large-scale visitation mitigates the heaviness of memory that pervades the place or whether the architectural memory will prove more powerful than GIPEC's attempts to turn the place into a model park for the 21st century.

Friday, May 30, 2008

What's new in DC

Armed with a spring resolution to post more frequently to Artiflection, I'll begin with a review of my Memorial Day weekend trip to DC, the land so etched-over with symbolism that there's almost nowhere to travel without being forced to consider or ignore someone else's infusion of meaning...

First, because I think it is always a factor in a person's enjoyment of museums and public spaces, the weather was absolutely splendid. We began our DC weekend with an excursion to the National Zoo. Feeling lately that I never go to the places where children go, I was immediately impressed by the flood of families. The museum grounds are essentially linear but the limited signs made the meander confusing. We were never certain that we were heading in the direction of the big cats or the elephants. The place is also under construction with a huge new outdoor elephant space slated for completion in 2011. This didn't stop the crowds to the elephant house. The orangatan highway (O-Line) was new since my last visit and I thought the Think Tank
was great. Simple exhibits with engaging content. All in all a good place to think about how much other people contribute or detract from a visitor's experience to a public place.

Sadly little time to really explore the Newseum as we arrived close to 4pm on Sunday, but enough to fully explore the few exhibits we were able to view. Why? Because the exhibits are cursory and quick-delivering, deftly following the news media's contemporary love affair with the sound-bite. We paid close attention to the Berlin Wall and September 11th Exhibits. September 11th had a fabulous installation of the very top of the antenna from the North Tower, but no prominent label explaining what we were looking at... The public was very moved by the interpretive film. The wall display of 9/12 front-pages fell flat on impact. The Berlin Wall exhibit also had impressive artifacts-- a large and colorful section of the wall and an original watch tower from the East Berlin side-- but not enough primary documents comparing news from the west (open, truthful?) with news from the east.

My conclusion: museums sometimes misinterpret young museum-goers' desires for simplicity and choice, providing brief exhibit text but little opportunity to go deeper. The result in the case of the Newseum was a flashy and technologically up-to-date environment where little real learning about the questions faced by journalists in a world controlled by market-share takes place. We came away knowing that journalists have strict codes of ethics because we were told that they do. I believe that it is important for museum's never to underestimate the power of examples. That is why people come to museums and not just movies or performances. There should be room for deep exploration-- not just broad introduction.

One last memorial note-- the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue was a small gem in a city glittering with flashier jewels. Well integrated into the city scape-- used by children learning to walk and family members having their pictures taken with the larger-than-life sailor standing alone looking out over the map of the world on the plaza. Nothing avant-garde or too abstract, but a peaceful spot surrounded by wave-like cascades in a circular fountain. While other memorials in the city invite subversive musing about the kinds of science fiction monsters they might become in a dystopic b-movie, the Navy Memorial remains remarkably benign.