Getting Creative in Columbus

 

I am now over three weeks into my US trip and have finished my time with the Columbus Museum of Art (CMA), the fourth case study on my tour. I am trying to hold off ‘joining the dots’ and making links between all the places I’ve seen and people I’ve met, but this tendency is starting to creep in. I had interviews with eight staff at CMA and, without fail, they all sung the praises of their Executive Director, Nannette V. Maciejunes, who is clearly a well-respected and much-loved driving force at the museum. On many occasions during these interviews, I was reminded of what others had said at the museums I’d visited previously, particularly in relation to ideas generation and wanting to try out new things. The pattern-recognition part of my brain is having a heated debate with the delay-judgement part of my brain – I’m not sure who’s winning at the moment.

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Atrium at the centre of the original museum

During my CMA interviews, time after time the staff talked about the freeflow of ideas, how they often turn to each other to kick around a half-thought, and how comfortable they are with getting every idea on the table – good, bad or otherwise. There was a wonderful confidence in how they spoke about ideas, and their ease with the process. Similarly, there was no anxiety around binning bad ideas, trying out new stuff, and learning from things that didn’t go to plan. The culture of the organisation genuinely embraces experimentation and recognises that sometimes things don’t work, and that’s okay – as long as the learning from that experience informs future programming. I can’t overstate how strongly this came across, and how consistently I have heard this from the many people I’ve met on this trip. These people burn through ideas like a spendthrift burns through money, and they’re happy to separate their egos from the process. Their antithesis would be the Gollums of this world who guard and stroke their one golden idea, repeating ‘the precious, the precious’, over and over again under their breath…

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Of the four museums I am focussing on, CMA is the smallest one with a permanent collection. The original building dates back to the 1930s and has that lovely neo-classical feel to it – all stone and columns and grandeur, albeit on a diminutive scale. A Brutalist extension added in the 1970s wasn’t considered a success, and I think many people were happy to see the back of it when it was pulled down to make way for the most recent site development project. Last year, the Margaret M Walter Wing opened, a sizable extension that wraps around two walls of the original building (think British Museum courtyard wrapping around the Reading Room, leaving the original external walls exposed). There is a new shop, cafe, sculpture garden, conference room and additional galleries. The original museum has a square floorplan with a loop of corridor around the core so it’s easy to circulate. On the first floor (or second floor if you’re American) are the galleries, which predominantly show paintings and photography, but also have sculpture, glass, textiles, and mixed media installations. They have a wonderful folk art collection, and I also got to meet another Hopper painting, Morning Sun, 1952.

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Morning Sun, 1952, by Edward Hopper
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The Walter Wing – to the left is the original outer wall of the 1930s museum; the visitor entrance is at the far end, with the shop to the right and the cafe to the left.

On the ground floor (or first floor, depending on your proclivities) is the JP Morgan Chase Center for Creativity. These galleries and rooms are the domain of the Learning and Experience teams and include:

  • Studio – a large, light workshop that can accommodate up to 35 people. The materials store cupboard would warm the heart of any educator – lots of great kit to play with, and all beautifully labelled and organised. The team use a lot of recycled materials, demonstrating that making doesn’t have to be expensive.
  • Innovation Lab – I got the impression that this was the tech workshop. The Teen Open Studio on Thursday evening was using it for sound editing.
  • Auditorium, Forum and Reading Room – these multi-purpose spaces are used for conferences and discussion-based or networking sessions. The Forum is located opposite the Auditorium; it was used for serving refreshments and pre-session lurking during the sessions I attended. The Reading Room is a comfortable seminar space; I saw it in action for a Docent Training session.

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  • Big Idea Gallery – situated along a broad corridor, ‘Dogs’ was the current exhibition when I visited. There were approximately two dozen paintings from the collection, all with a dog somewhere in the scene. There were plenty of interpretation and feedback tools too: a boardgame; a couple of jigsaw puzzles (I got sucked into the Normal Rockwell one by accident); ‘Join the Conversation’ stations where visitors could leave comments; and a selection of dog tags, labelled with adjectives, that you could hang up next to the artworks to describe the scene. I’m not that fussed about dogs, but I love puzzles and now know details in that Rockwell painting that I would never have stopped to ponder otherwise.
  • Open Gallery – this space runs in parallel to the Big Idea Gallery, along the opposite side of the Center for Creativity. The current exhibition shows the work of CMA’s Graphic Novelist in Residence, Ronald Wimberly, and there’s a good mix of large quotes on the wall to catch the eye and exquisite images to slow you down and draw you in.
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Hours of fun – thick, glossy puzzle pieces are durable and irresistible.
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‘Dog tags’ – a quick way to engage visitors (and to see what other visitors have thought)

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  • Wonder Room – this space does exactly what you would want a room of wonder to do. It’s filled with nooks and hidey-holes and plenty of original objects and artworks from the collection to inspire conversation and making. There is a large tree in the centre of the room, and in one corner is an eccentric cottage that has walls pitted with miniature interior scenes. It’s intriguing, quirky and incredibly popular with audiences.

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Merilee Mostov, Chief Engagement Officer, leads on interpretation at CMA. She dreamt up the Wonder Room and her fantastic creative influence is visible throughout the museum. There are ‘Join the Conversation’ stations in a number of galleries, as well as a range of activities and invitations for further thought and discussion. Best of all, Merilee understands museums to be places for social interaction and helps make visitors feel welcome by providing lots of comfortable seating – stools, chairs, benches, sofas, and armchairs. Yes, that’s right, chairs with backs and arms on them, in galleries – Hallelujah!

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The activity table in the foreground has a puzzle of a nearby painting. In the background, between the armchairs, is a ‘Join the Conversation’ board covered in post-its.
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The museum doesn’t shy away from the hot potatoes of politics and religion and encourages visitors to share their views.
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Not surprisingly, the upcoming election is on many visitors’ minds at the moment.

The Learning Department has invested a lot of time and energy into better understanding and articulating the importance of creativity, and their work is having a positive impact across the museum and into the community. Cindy Foley, Executive Deputy Director of Learning and Experience, originated this new approach at CMA and her passion, vision, and drive make her the ideal leader for supporting change. Her TED talk gives a taster of both her views on creativity and her infectious enthusiasm. I could (and probably will) devote a whole post to how CMA are promoting creativity; meanwhile, I’d like to mention how this work applies to their relationship with schools. CMA run the Teaching for Creativity Institute, a year of support and training, focussed on creativity, for a selected group of Ohio State teachers. CMA are also part-way through a research project, Making Creativity Visible, examining examples of highly creative practice in the classroom and addressing the following questions: what are the conditions in which creativity thrives, and what are the dispositions that support the creative process? The CMA Learning team seem to have found that sweet spot where theory and practice are balanced; there are plenty of large, chewy ideas to get your teeth into, and there are also plenty of programmes and activity testing and evaluating the ideas.

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Museum on the Move is CMA’s outreach programme. On this particular Saturday, the team were contributing to a ‘Good Neighbours’ picnic at a local park, arranged annually for families affected by homelessness.
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IMA: Indy’s Best Kept Secret

The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), located on a large site to the northwest of the city centre, is a museum, a mini-golf course, a stately home and gardens, and a 100 acre park. It’s not the easiest place to reach by foot, but it’s definitely worth the journey. I spent many happy hours enjoying the collections and then getting out into the sun and exploring the gardens and park. Mini-golf provokes an irrational rage in me, so I gave it a miss, but I loved the format (each hole has been designed by a different artist) and families were clearly having a good time. The biggest surprise to me was the relative paucity of other visitors. A resource like this in London would be totally rammed. I’m not complaining; I felt spoilt rotten being able to enjoy the spaces with extra elbow room, but this place deserves a large and bustling crowd because it’s so damn good!

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‘Vonnegut Doodles’, 14th Hole on the mini-golf course. Author Kurt Vonnegut was from Indiana.

The museum collections and exhibitions are presented over three levels, with a large central atrium that showcases two spectacular installations, Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing No.265, recreated 2005, and Robert Irwin’s Light and Space III, 2008. The first floor has a substantial display of European and American art and design. I underestimated the number of galleries and spent about three hours noodling along, assuming I was almost done a few times, and then discovering another whole section. Far too many favourites to list them all, but it was a treat to see so many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist treasures, and I particularly enjoyed Hopper’s The Hotel Lobby, 1943, and O’Keefe’s Jimson Weed, 1936.

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Light and Space III, 2008, by Robert Irwin

Across from the permanent collection is the temporary exhibition, 19 Stars of Indiana Art: A Bicentennial Celebration. The show is a survey of 19 artists and designers either from, or working in, Indiana, and includes fashion designers Halston and Bill Blass, sculptor David Smith, and printmakers Garo Antreasian and Veja Celmins (the full list is here). Effective interactives and interpretation spaces punctuate the show. For example, a craftspace, located in the Nature Lovers section, encourages visitors to make the Indiana State insect, bird or flower (the Say’s firefly, cardinal or peony, since you asked) and add it to a collective display. The exhibition ends with an immersive video installation of 10 contemporary practitioners, each speaking about one of the artists in the show and their influence.

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Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing No.265, can be seen in the background
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Make your own firefly, cardinal or peony – activity space in the 19 Stars of Indiana Art exhibition

The next floor has wonderful galleries of Asian and African arts, as well as a small display of Greek and Roman art. The design galleries are also on this floor and show examples from 1980 onward. They are so beautifully presented, it felt more like a super-classy retail experience; there were so many great vantage points to scan and browse the whole room. AND, if that wasn’t enough, there was also the stunning temporary exhibition, A Joy Forever: Marie Webster Quilts. Marie Webster is the Elvis of quilting. Her designs first gained recognition when they appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1911, and she had a huge influence on the craft by publishing books on quilting and selling her patterns. A retrospective brochure on Webster is free to download from the IMA site here. Her skill was phenomenal and to see whole rooms of these quilts was very impressive.

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Elu face masks, 20th century, Ogoni people, Nigeria
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Design Arts gallery

 

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French Baskets, 1930, made by Emma Daughtery, pattern design by Marie Webster

Tucked behind this show is a Textile and Fashion Arts Activity Space, which has a range of activities including a fuzzy-felt quilting activity (joy) and 10 half-size mannequins, showing how women’s dress has changed over a 200-year period. You’re actually allowed to handle this dress display, which amazed me, as the cream fabric still looked immaculate.

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The top floor is devoted to contemporary art and has a mix of room-sized installations and large galleries showing a number of different artists. I have more favourites on this floor too – I would have happily taken Tim Hawkinsons’s Mobius Ship, 2006,  home with me if I could, and Do-Ho Suh’s Floor, 1997-2000, which didn’t look like much until I realised it was being held up by thousands of tiny people AND visitors are allowed to walk on it. I try to resist using the F word in this blog, but unfortunately fun is the only way to describe these galleries.

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Mobius Ship, 2008, by Tim Hawkinson

So, that’s inside. At this time of year, outside is scorching hot so the garden and park smell delicious, all warm earth and leaves. The garden surrounds Lilly House, the former home of J.K. Lilly, Jnr, the late businessman, collector and philanthropist. The whole estate is known as Oldfields. There is more information on the history of Oldfields and a photo tour of the house here.

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Lilly House

The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park: 100 Acres, to use the full title, is immediately next to the Oldfields estate. I visited on a Monday morning, when the museum and garden are closed to the public, and it was nice to see the park being used by dog-walkers, joggers, and cyclists. Dotted with artworks, this was another space that I enjoyed playing in – give me a swing and a lake, and I’m happy as a clam.

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Chopstick, 2012, by visiondivision
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Indy Island, 2010, by Andrea Zittel. IMA website: About 20 feet in  diameter, Indy Island was conceived as an experimental living structure that examined the daily needs of contemporary human beings during summer. From summers 2010-2013, the island was occupied by commissioned residents who adapted and modified the island’s structures to suit their individual needs.

As I mentioned in my first blogpost on IMA, I wanted to visit because I was inspired by Silvia Filippini-Fantoni’s comments in a Guardian article. Silvia is the Director of Interpretation, Media and Evaluation and has been at IMA for about four years. She’s had a key role in delivering major changes at the organisation over this relatively short period. Most dramatically, she’s devised a new exhibition development process. For every new show at IMA a core team is brought together, made up of a curator, a designer, an evaluator, an interpretation specialist and a project manager.

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A sleuthing activity to identify an unknown artist. Part of the exhibition, On the Flipside: Secrets on the Back of Paintings.

The core team thrashes out all aspects of exhibition development and planning, and audience research is absolutely fundamental to this process. This might include: formative research into the viability and interest in an exhibition idea; identifying key learning outcomes; and testing different approaches to interpretation. For every exhibition, there is a ‘Big Idea’ document to keep everyone on track. A hierarchy of learning outcomes is used to plan the type and range of interpretation formats, and to measure success. Since instigating this new approach, visitor satisfaction levels have increased and visitors are more likely to report learning outcomes that are consistent with the exhibition aims. Silvia and her team have such a strong understanding of their audiences and do a great job of using this information to improve all aspects of the visitor experience.

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A repurposed interpretation tool that introduces different properties of colour mixing, located in a gallery of pointillist paintings.

These changes have only been made possible with support from the top. Charles Venable joined IMA as Director in 2012 and his leadership is having a transformative effect on how the museum thinks about and works with audiences. He has the unenviable task of needing to improve  financial sustainability and increase visitor figures. This has led to some difficult changes, including restructuring of staff and the introduction of admission charges, both of which have generated plenty of flak in the media. However, I believe that Charles is playing the long game and making decisions that will open the museum up to new audiences and protect its future.  The organisation now places a much greater emphasis on people, and recognises that social, playful events are increasingly what audiences demand of museum experiences. By tapping into the additional potential of the garden and park, programming can also reach out to nature lovers, horticulturalists, gardeners, birders, foodies, and anyone who enjoys the nature-art combo. So much thought and consideration is going into the decisions being made at IMA and I wish them every success.

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Free Basket 2010, by Los Carpinteros

Header image: Love, 1970, by Robert Indiana, and Five Brushstrokes, designed 1983-84, fabricated 2012, by Roy Lichtenstein

Hoosiers? Like the band?

 

So my crash course on American State history continues apace. I arrived in Indianapolis a few days ago, knowing little more than where it was on the map, and that it has an amazing Museum of Art (more on that another time). It turns out that Indiana locals are known as Hoosiers, but no-one knows exactly where the name comes from. I suppose it’s a bit like Scousers in Liverpool and Geordies in Newcastle. Indiana is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year; its constitution was written in 1816, and it was the 19th State to join the Union. I spent most of my Saturday in the Indiana History Center, the Eiteljorg Museum and the Indiana State Museum, all only a stone’s throw from each other, and I’m now filled with Indiana-based facts (I know, I know, the dream dinner-party guest). A few museum highlights below…

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Indiana History Center, the fob watch is just to the right of the colonnade

At the entrance to the Indiana History Center is a large fob watch; its hands turn anticlockwise – a tidy way of priming visitors for the ‘step back in time’ that is about to happen. After watching a collection of short films on the founding and history of Indiana, and exploring interactives that present photos, documents and artworks linked to Indiana, there are a suite of live interpretation galleries. The Cole Porter room is like a swanky 1930s hotel bar; the walls are lined with photos of Porter and his famous friends, and there is a piano in one corner and a long (boozeless) bar along the back wall. In the place of a bartender is a large screen showing clips of old films playing Porter’s songs. On entering the room, I was met by a man in a suit who directed me to what looked like a drinks menu but was actually a menu of Porter songs. I chose I’ve Got You Under My Skin, and then he SANG it, accompanied by the piano (one of those nifty ones where the keys move but no-one is playing it). Now, this could have been a fist-chewingly awful experience if it had been done badly, but it was amazing. His voice was incredible and he totally brought the song to life. It felt like a treat.

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Indiana History Center: each ‘pod’ has a touchscreen where you can explore archive material
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The Cole Porter Room

After being serenaded, I moved on to the first of two ‘You Are There’ experiences. In each case, dry ice (or something like it) forms a white screen across a doorway and an image from the collection is projected onto it – a docent explains that you are about to step back in time and the people you are about to meet know nothing about the world beyond that year. My first destination was a community canning kitchen in 1947. As I stepped through the photo and into darkness, I half expected Matthew Kelly to greet me, but was spat out into a large kitchen and met two women ‘canning’ (preserving fruit and veg in glass bottles). Apparently the Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Company was based in Indiana and to support their workers, they established large communal kitchens where women could cook and preserve food in Ball’s glass jars -a welcome resource in the war years and beyond. The kitchens were so popular that they were opened up to the whole community.

The second ‘You Are There’ experience whisked me back to 1816 and I met a couple of young men drafting the Indiana Constitution. When it was written, the Southern third of the State was divided into counties but the Northern two-thirds, Knox County, was uncharted by settlers and predominantly still the domain of Native American tribes, including Miami, Potawatomi and Delaware peoples. It was written into the 1816 Constitution that all people, irrespective of race, are to be treated equally. However, this statement was not supported in practice, to say the least. The tribes were pushed off the land by increasingly restrictive treaties, culminating in the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to forced marches and massacres. The nearby Eiteljorg Museum is devoted to Native American art and culture and tells the stories of these tribes. Much of the focus of this museum is on contemporary Native American culture, including the continuation and reinterpretation of traditional arts, crafts and skills.

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Eiteljorg Museum
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Olla, c.1910, unnamed artist, Apache, made from Devil’s claw, yucca, willow and split willow

My next stop was the Indiana State Museum. The building has a large glass atrium, and hosts the museum as well as a restaurant, a conference centre and an IMAX cinema. When I entered, it felt more like going into a shopping mall, which was a bit disconcerting. Normal service resumed when I got into the museum. The lower floor includes geology and paleontology; above that is social history. The gallery of famous Hoosiers includes the unlikely combination of Axl Rose, Shelley Long, Kurt Vonnegut, Larry Bird, the Jacksons, James Dean, Jim Davis, and David Letterman!

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Indiana State Museum

When I was in Dallas, I was shocked to seeing a KKK hood – little did I know that this would be a recurring theme to the museum visits on my trip. I have now encountered KKK objects in four different collections. I assumed it was a scourge of the Southern States; I had no idea it spread so far North. It turns out that Indiana was a hotbed for the KKK and at one point in the 1920s it is estimated that one third of ALL white men in the State were members. While slavery was illegal in Indiana in the 19th century, the authorities had turned a blind eye to the practice. Many slaves were fleeing North in the 1840s, sometimes setting up rural communities to escape persecution and discrimination in the cities. The Indiana powers that be decided to ‘clamp down’ on the shifting demographic of the State, and when the Constitution was revised in 1851, a ban was placed on African Americans entering the State. Yup. Segregation of public services, schools, and restaurants were commonplace through to the 1960s and the civil rights movement was vital in tackling overt racism and discrimination.

The top floor of the museum is devoted to temporary exhibitions and has two shows celebrating the bicentennial; ‘200 Years of Indiana Art’ and ‘Indiana in 200 Objects’. The paintings show is arranged chronologically and includes their star exports, T.C. Steele, David Smith and Robert Indiana. The objects show is a mix of design, natural history, and social history. It was fun to see Amelia Earhart’s jacket and James Dean’s jacket and a gold jacket from one of Michael Jackson’s tours (it wasn’t all jackets, those were just my favourites).  But the loudest object in the room was an electric chair, used to execute prisoners in Indiana as recently as 1994.

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Flight jacket worn by Amelia Earhart, c.1930s
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I have included the exhibition label for this object below – I couldn’t quite believe how recently it was last used.

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American museums keep doing this to me – I’m having a lovely time looking at the jackets of famous people and then – THWAPP – some horrible, violent thing appears and then overshadows the rest of my visit. I can’t remember a UK museum doing this to me – perhaps it’s because UK history is more familiar to me? Or do UK museums focus on other aspects of the past? I suppose I only know the worst sides of US history from books and films; it’s a whole other experience to meet the objects that witnessed those events. While those objects shock me, they are also the ones I spend most time thinking about after my visit, and they have the biggest impact on my understanding of the places I’m visiting. I love that museums are able to tell such important social history so powerfully.

Header image: Old Woman Singing Traditional Song, 1998, serpentine with caribou antler, by Mattiusie Iyaituk, in the Eiteljorg Museum

Other Cool Stuff in Denver

 

The primary purpose of my visit to Denver was to spend time at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA Denver), which I highly recommend and I’ve written about in previous posts. While I was in town, I also visited a number of other cultural institutions and saw a whole bunch of amazing stuff that I’d like to share.

First up – Denver Art Museum (DAM). Split over two distinctive buildings in the heart of the cultural district, DAM is vast and it took me a couple of visits to get all the way around it. The taller North Building shows African, American Indian, Pre-Columbian, and Asian arts as well as European and American painting and decorative arts in the Western tradition. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but Pre-Columbian art really is amazing and DAM has an entire study centre devoted to it, including rows and rows of collection objects, organised by region. Well and truly my happy place.

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Female Dancer, Nopiloa style, c. AD 600-900, Mexico, Veracruz
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Hanuman, Monkey God, 1800s, India

The spiky North Building at DAM is an impressive architectural statement but must be a challenge to work with. (Why do architects like making museums with sloping walls?) These spaces are predominantly devoted to temporary exhibitions although there is also a display of 19th century American art and sculpture, depicting a world of large skies, wagon trails, exotic locals and bucking broncos. I particularly enjoyed the exhibitions; Rhythm and Roots: Dance in American Art shows dance traditions of indigenous peoples as well as jazz, ballet, and the Charleston. Next door to this exhibition is an incredible space, called the Dance Lab, (#dancelab to see more) which is a long, dark room, filled with pumping music and a huge projection screen running the length of one wall. The screen shows approximately 15 people, all visitors who have danced in response to the music. Their movements, only a few seconds long and then looped, are overlaid with bright day-glo squiggles and shapes. The atmosphere is more nightclub that museum and all ages were in there and enjoying it.

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Denver Art Museum: Dance Lab

The top floor exhibition, Women of Abstract Expressionism was a joy; there is so much energy, strength and vitality in the paintings. I am pretty ‘take it or leave it’ with a lot of the AbEx crew and find the posturing of its male stars a bit wearisome, but this show reminded me that the scale and colour of these paintings can be wonderfully overwhelming and uplifting – I left the galleries feeling really good.

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Interpretation space in the Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibition

One of the most striking things about DAM is the number of seating areas and interpretation spaces. Most rooms have at least a couple of seats to aid contemplation and slowing down. I also encountered a number of rooms that were like cabinets of curiosity, filled with sofas, desks, nooks, objects, books, art, and games. My jaw was on the floor when I stumbled across the first one; the room was so inviting, I just wanted to move in, put my slippers on and get comfy. DAM is not an experience to be rushed, and while its scale can be daunting, there are plenty of pit-stops along the way.

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One of several interpretation rooms dotted across the museum at DAM

Secondly, History Colorado Center. Having learnt a huge amount from the social history museums I visited in Dallas, I hoped this museum would do the same for my understanding of Denver – and it totally delivered. I didn’t know the Dust Bowl in the 1930s was the result of over-farming the land, and lack of diversity in the crops. Post-WW1, European wheat growers were out of action, so it was the boom years for Mid-Western farmers. But when droughts came, closely followed by the Depression, the region faced grinding poverty and had to cope with dust-storms that destroyed crops and cattle and buried houses under many feet of barren dirt. It was so bad, children were dying from the dust in their lungs. The History Colorado Center is filled with interactives and immersive experiences that are very visceral. To tell the Dust Bowl story, there is an audio-video interactive that is like entering a small family home in the 1930s. You sit in the front room, and are able to look out the window and see the winds picking up and the skies darkening. It gets louder and darker, and the whole room shakes and rumbles as the commentary tells the story of a family hoping that the house holds together and doesn’t get blown away.

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The top floor of the museum is the temporary exhibition space. I visited El Movimiento, The Chicano Movement in Colorado, which focusses on civil rights for Mexican Americans, and includes protests to improve school conditions for Chicano kids, strong anti-Vietnam War statements, and issues around identity. It proved to me yet again that America is deeply divided and museums are a great place to learn about both recent history and its impact on the present. The other exhibition I visited on this floor was something totally different – Awkward Family Photos. Many of these I’d seen online before, but I liked the presentation as the space was arranged like a private sitting room. Everyone in there was laughing out loud, it was a lot of fun. There was also a photography studio and dress-ups so you could submit your own family photo and enter a competition for the most awkward. Loved it.

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Awkward Family Photos exhibition

Nearby to both the History Colorado Center and DAM is the Clyfford Still Museum, which holds his archive, the majority of his output (many paintings are still rolled up and yet to be catalogued), and a beautiful gallery that, as per the stipulation of the gift, may only show Still’s work. I learnt about Still when I was an art history student 20 years ago; it was a treat to see the real things in such a dedicated setting. The man may have been ego personified, but he also created very beautiful paintings. I hadn’t seen his early work of the 1930s before, and found the elongated faces and distorted bodies to be disturbing and reminded me of what I’d learnt about the Dust Bowl. If concrete is your thing, I would also recommend the Clyfford Still Museum for its architecture. Allied Works Architects used cast concrete to create fine vertical ‘fins’ that line many of the walls. The concrete has chipped and flaked away along the edge of the fins, creating an amazing play of light and an interesting echo to the verticality in the paintings.

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An early Clyfford Still painting (untitled)
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Clyfford Still Museum: staircase to the galleries

And one final stop – the Denver Botanic Gardens. I wanted to visit because there is an exhibition of sculpture from the Walker Art Center dotted throughout the gardens, but this didn’t end up being my focus. I fell in love with the glasshouse – more gorgeous concrete – designed by Denver architects, Victor Hornbein and Edward D White, Jnr. in 1966. A large Japanese garden, including water lilies and bonzai, was ridiculously photogenic. Thanks to late-night opening hours, I was able to wander around at dusk, and the early-Autumn light was stunning.

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The Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory. Charles Boettcher and his sons made their fortune from the Ideal Cement Company. This is the only conservatory in America made from cast-in-place concrete.

So, in conclusion, go to Denver. What I’ve mentioned above is only the tip of the iceberg.

Header image: The Seasons, 1957, by Lee Krasner

MCA Denver: a museum like no other

 

MCA Denver is going to be difficult to write about because none of the existing terminology fits. Under the leadership of Director, Adam Lerner, MCA Denver is deliberately pushing boundaries and challenging pretty much any museum orthodoxy you could name. This is demonstrated most vividly in how the team thinks and talks about its public programmes. Sarah Kate Baie, Director of Programs, has a team of two and leads on adult events, such as talks, festivals and tours, and the teen programme for 13-18 year olds. However, this brief summary doesn’t reflect what is so different about their way of working – the magic is in the detail.

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Museum entrance and shop
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The four-level building was designed by British architect, David Adjaye.

Sarah views her programme as a lens through which contemporary culture can be explored and discussed; the exhibitions are occasionally a springboard for programming, but the scope is so much broader than that. For example, Sarah recently programmed a series of events titled Art Meets Beast. This included bringing a recently deceased bison (yes, bison) into the museum and, in front of an audience, a butcher gave commentary as the beast was segmented into cuts of meat. Six chefs were in the audience and had their choice of cuts to take away in order to prepare a six-course meal of bison, that was served to the audience the following evening. The programme also included a bus tour that explored food production and included visits to a farm, a cannery, and a brewery. For Sarah, the subject itself, food, may appear narrow, but it taps into a much bigger thing – why we are the way we are. These are not programmes about teaching art historical detail and equipping people with the skills required to visit museums; these are programmes about culture, society, art, life, ideas and experiences.

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Recovery Systems for Facing Catastrophe, 2015-16, by Guido Ignatti. The exhibition catalogue can be downloaded free at http://bit.ly/ignattiPDF

The ambition and imagination of Sarah and her team outstrips the time and resource available so, more recently, public programming has been opened out to other members of the team to meet the demand. Clayton Kenney joined as Director of Marketing and Communications a year ago and leads on adult programming with a more overtly social dimension (although this line is a blurry one) such as DJ evenings, parties, and, while I was visiting, a Zine Festival, where young creatives were selling their handcrafted magazines, prints and drawings. The cafe staff also contribute to programming and manage weekly live music events in the summer, called B-Side Thursdays – perfect for enjoying a few drinks on the museum’s roof terrace.

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Clayton previously worked at Red Bull, creating marketing events along the west coast. He brings a strong understanding of brand positioning to his role and sees MCA Denver’s future as more akin to a lifestyle brand than a museum. The place has a reputation for being approachable and not taking itself too seriously, but for also providing high quality exhibitions that don’t shy away from serious and complicated subject matter – it’s a really interesting mix. Social evening events and parties are a growing area of interest at MCA Denver, making the most of the museum’s popularity with young people, millennials and local makers and artists.

I was struck by the team’s approach to ideas development. Both Sarah and Clayton spoke about the importance of discarding ideas that aren’t working, or of taking an idea that has progressed so far and then pushing to make it better. Ideas are daily currency at MCA Denver and, with a small team and a lack of bureaucracy, staff are empowered to dream something up on a Monday and be in a position to try it out by the weekend. Ideas are not treated as rare precious gems, but as the bread and butter of the organisation and there is fantastic confidence in how the team generates new programmes.

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Yes But, 2008 (right-hand wall), Code Poems, 2016 (floor-based, ceramic) and silk-screen print (left-hand wall) by Adam Pendleton.

I get the impression that the MCA Denver team is a tight unit, all pulling in the same direction. I’m sure plenty of creative disagreements occur too, but the overall aim of the museum – to try things that haven’t been tried before – is communicated consistently and appears to be a shared goal. This is not a coincidence; the Director is clearly the driving force of the museum and he has created a positive, creative environment and a team that relishes diving into the unknown and breaking out from the constraints of standard museum-world conversations. This made my interview with Adam challenging as I felt I was talking about the invention of the wheel while he was talking about nuclear physics. For example, there is no line for Adam between the curatorial thinking that goes into planning exhibitions and the learning approach that shapes public programmes. There just isn’t that distinction and to even talk about it feels horribly old-fashioned because the two are so intertwined. Whenever I have heard these arguments previously, that curatorial and learning shouldn’t be thought of as separate things, it’s been to rationalise cutting learning departments and privilege the curatorial perspective. But this wasn’t Adam’s tone – as with all conversations I had at MCA Denver, there is clearly a huge amount of respect shown between colleagues and a fluidity and flexibility in their thinking and working that doesn’t prioritise one area over another. It’s an amazing model and one that could have a significant impact on shaping future museum practice.

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Roof Terrace Garden

Header image: seating outside the roof terrace cafe, MCA Denver

 

 

Dallas Museum of Art: the Center for Creative Connections

I have written an overview of the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) building and collections here. For this post, I’d like to focus on the DMA’s education galleries, called the Center for Creative Connections (C3). The Center is very prominent in the museum, located midway down the main passageway that runs the length of the building. There is a broad entrance, preceded by a long window that allows passing visitors to peek inside. The footprint of C3 is an impressive 1,100sqm, but it still amazed me that so many activities could be accommodated in the space without feeling crowded or cramped. A guided tour…

A large bright sign welcomes visitors and describes the space as ‘an experimental learning environment [for] all ages…’ To the immediate left of the entrance is the C3 Theater, with a seating capacity of 285. I happened to be visiting during First Tuesdays, a whole morning, monthly, devoted to programming for 0-5 year olds and their carers. The theme is different each time; for September it was Space Odyssey. I visited the Theater twice to see free drop-in events. Firstly, I saw Star Warp, a Star Wars puppet show by Geppetto Marionette Theater. At the end of the performance, families were able to come up and have their photo taken with the puppeteers and their creations, or have a go manipulating the puppets. Secondly, Dallas Public Library led a 30 minute story-telling session, that was a mix of picture books and singalongs, all tying in with the outer space theme. The storyteller had an impressive tolerance for bedlam – this was an event specifically for little ones, so running around and chatting loudly were par for the course and didn’t seem to detract from the audience’s enjoyment.

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When you leave the theatre, you’re facing a large comfortable room – white walls and wooden floors make it feel light and spacious but not clinical. This room has a mix of objects from the collection and three activity areas. The Drawing Spot presents an opportunity to focus on one object and use the rather fabulous drawing benches to sketch; the current object is Ivory Spirit, 1990, by David Hammons. There are also two activity tables, with new activities every month (which sounds like a lot of work for the team). One table takes inspiration from the nearby masks on display, and invites visitors to rearrange laminated details from other masks in the collection to make a new face.

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The blue painting on the left is the outside wall of the C3 Theater. The table on the left is for the mask activity; the table on the right is for the printmaking activity, with the Drawing Spot in the background. Through the archway to the right, you can see the Digital Spot, with the Art Spot to its right and Community at Large to its left.

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The final activity table has a nifty demonstration of the printmaking technique, linking to a display of Japanese prints and tools nearby. Four small panels are fixed to the table and, with a piece of paper, visitors can take rubbings of all four – if done in the right sequence and with the right colours, it builds up to create a picture of a cactus. I liked this one so much I did it twice.

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The Japanese printmaking tools are in the perspex case, with examples of the technique on the wall. The rubbing activity, to build up an image of a cactus, is in the foreground.

From here, another archway leads through to the largest space, which has the following activity zones:

  • the Art Spot – tables offer a range of selected materials, next to objects that don’t usually make it out of the museum stores to provide inspiration. An Art Exchange wall is a space for visitors to label and display their creations and play along by ‘taking one and leaving one’;
  • the Digital Spot – a long red wall mounted with screens, shows objects that have been selected by theme and displayed in rotation. Visitors can upload their own photos and add them to the display; and
  • Community at Large – another means of examining a single artwork, but this time working collectively. Visitors can select a square which matches a grid reference then scale up from the inspiration artwork. Fantastically expressive, the crowd-sourced response captures a lot of the energy of the original.
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The Art Spot – the back wall is the Art Exchange, where visitors can display their work and ‘take one, leave one’.

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Downstairs from Community at Large, and tucked away a little bit, is the Young Learners’ Gallery, for 5-8 year olds. Facing an internal courtyard, this is a lovely space and again is themed. At the moment, ‘Line’ is the point of departure and the space includes an artist commission and a peg-board wall where children can make their own responses. Building blocks covered in black lines continue the theme and the Reading Wall (which looks like a giant bug hotel) is also stocked with children’s books that riff off the ‘Line’ theme.

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The Reading Wall – I waited until it was empty to take a photo but both adults and children were making use of the seating.

Returning back upstairs to the main space, to the left is a room called Arturo’s Nest, a space dedicated to 0-4s and their carers. Arturo is a macaw, based on a collection object, and the mascot for the early years’ programmes. The current theme in Arturo’s Nest  is ‘Camping’ so there is a little tent and the selection of toys includes nets and animals. There is a lightbox activity which involves matching pictures of animals to pictures of their skeletons. A large window looks out onto trees and this space must be a great oasis for parents. A nice touch is Arturo’s postbox – children can write letters, asking Arturo questions, and then post them. If they include their addresses, Arturo (or perhaps one of his helpers) writes back.

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But that’s not all! The remaining two spaces, the Art Studio and the Tech Lab are your traditional workshop spaces. The Art Studio is for messy materials like paints and clay; the Tech Lab is more for construction and dry materials. Both spaces were open during First Tuesdays – you could collage a rocket ship in the Art Studio or explore a range of games and toys in the Tech Lab, including kinetic sand, which I hadn’t seen before but is the most amazing material.

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Art Studio
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Tech Lab

You would think that with all this activity the space would be loud and chaotic, but it really wasn’t. My first experience of the space was during a Bank Holiday weekend and it was rammed, but it felt creative and social, and not like I’d just wandered into the ballpit area of a local IKEA, *shudder*. It was also great to see people of all ages and all walks of life making use of C3 too. Volunteers and interns keep the spaces tidy and restock materials, as well as chatting with visitors and sharing ideas and inspiration.

Recently, the C3 team have been expanding their families offer into the other galleries outside C3. Pop-up Art Spot is a neat red trolley that is located on a different floor of the museum 1-4pm every weekend (and every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday during the summer holidays). The team has developed a selection of activities, each focussing on one object. When I was visiting, the focus object was an impressive silver canopy from Indonesia and the Art Spot trolley was located immediately next to it.

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The Pop-up Art Spot also has a selection of three Tote Bags that can be used with any artworks on any floor (although for ease of tracking their usage, the team asks that families stick to the same level that the Pop-up Art Spot is located on for that week). You can choose from Senses, Colour, or Family Favourites. Each Tote Bag takes into consideration different learning styles and preferred modes of engagement with art, so you can make, play, write or draw. The tasks often require family members talking together and swapping ideas, creating shared memories. Impressively, the Family Favourites Tote Bag was devised by a family who visit every single week and love the bags so much they wanted to create their own – the C3 team were open to their suggestion and made it happen.

I met with three members of the team: Jessica Fuentes, Manager of Gallery Interpretation and C3; Kerry Butcher, C3 Coordinator; and Leah Hanson, Manager of Families and Early Years’ Programmes. Their programmes attract a regular, committed audience, which requires relatively frequent changes to the activities on offer to keep visitors coming back. I found Jessica, Kerry and Leah to be incredibly dedicated, creative and inspiring museum educators. I’m looking forward to sharing what I’ve learnt from them, but that will have to wait for another time.

My next stop is Denver and the Museum of Contemporary Art

 

Dallas Museum of Art: the collection

When planning my Churchill Fellowship trip to the US, Dallas was a must. I’d read so much about the amazing audience development research at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) and I knew that I wanted to see the education programmes in action and meet the staff. Over the past few days I have spent many happy hours at DMA and have absolutely loved my time there. A single blog post would go on for days, so I’m going to break this up into more manageable chunks, starting with the building and collection itself, to give a bit of context.

In advance of my visit, I’d been so focussed on the education programmes that I hadn’t really thought about the collections I was going to see, which was a bit daft because the place blew my mind. The building is absolutely stunning – all cream marble and clean modernist lines. The largest gallery has the volume of a cathedral, and the cafe is equally impressive in a space that measures the full height of the building, with a spectacular Rauschenberg on one wall and a Chihuly installation on the other.

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This long passageway runs the length of the museum
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DMA cafe

Each of the four floors is calm and inviting; high horizontal windows and internal courtyards flood the galleries with natural light, and there is easy access to the other floors as broad staircases link one space to another. A large passageway runs the length of the building, sloping downhill because the street level at one end of the building is much higher than street level at the other (the museum runs the length of an entire block).

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The Arts of Africa gallery

Level 1 shows modern and contemporary practice in the main gallery, and four smaller galleries branching off it have temporary displays. Unfortunately, my visit fell between exhibitions, but you would usually see exhibitions on Level 1 too. The Center for Creative Connections is also on Level 1, located in the heart of the building and highly visible to all passing visitors; this is the education centre and I’ll be returning to it in detail in another blog post.

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Modern and Contemporary art displays, Level 1

Level 2 shows Greek and Roman art, and 17th-20th century European art, including a nice collection of Impressionist, Symbolist, Cubist, Surrealist, and Expressionist work.

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Head of a Youth, Roman, Antonine period c.AD 160-170

Level 3 shows African, Asian and Pacific Island art, as well as 17th-19th century decorative arts. These galleries have some incredible objects; I particularly enjoyed the African and Pacific Island displays as there were so many varied and rich examples, quite different from the sparse smatterings we tend to get in UK collections. There was a small room of Japanese enamel and cloissonné which was phenomenal – so, so, so beautiful!

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Memorial figure (uli), Papua New Guinea, early 20th century
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Meiji period vases, enamel with silver, late 19th century

Level 3 also displays the Wendy & Emery Reves collection, recreating some of the rooms in their Villa La Pausa home on the French Riviera. The house had previously been owned by Coco Chanel and the Reves filled it with their collection of fine art, Chinese export ware ceramics, carpets, period furniture and – Emery’s particular passion – ornate gold frames. The re-creation of Wendy Reves’ bedroom has to be seen to be believed. Winston Churchill was a friend of the Reves and there is a small display of paintings he made while he was staying with them, alongside his paintbox and a box of his cigars.

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Wendy and Emery Reves Collection
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Re-creation of Wendy Reves’ bedroom

Level 4 shows art of the Ancient Americas (indigenous peoples of Pre-Colombian cultures) as well as colonial art, decorative art and 20th century American art. I’ve visited both Mexico and Peru and I’m totally fixated with the art of this region so these galleries were my favourites. I like the Moche pots and the small ceramics figures. There was an extraordinary depiction of Xipe Totec, a cult priest who wears the skin of a sacrificed human – you can see the gash across his fleshy shirt where the heart had been taken out and it doesn’t quite ‘button up’ at the back. The second ‘face’ is roped onto the head. Disgusting and awesome.

I was really struck by the quality of the curation across the whole museum – objects are well spaced and beautifully presented. Each object has room to breathe and you get the impression that only the best works are on display; there’s no filler here. Not surprisingly, the visitor experience team is well trained and I enjoyed brief, friendly chats with a number of the invigilation staff who clearly take pride in their museum. Who knows if or when I’ll ever have the opportunity to return, but at least I have the catalogue to remind me of everything I’ve seen.

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Dog with Human Mask, Mexico, state of Colima, c.BC 100 – AD 200

Header image: Banquete chair with pandas, designed 2006, by Fernando Campana

Dallas: Old Red and Sixth Floor Museums

In downtown Dallas, the Old Red Museum and the Sixth Floor Museum are only one block apart from each other. The Old Red Museum is in a beautiful red brick building, like a fairytale castle complete with turrets, that dates back to 1890. It was built as the county courthouse, the fifth manifestation on the site – the first courthouse had been a log cabin dating to the 1840s when Dallas was still a newly-formed city. The Sixth Floor Museum is in the old Texas School Book Depository, on the corner of Elm and Houston and next to Dealey Plaza; it was from a window on the sixth floor of this building that Lee Harvey Oswald shot US President, John F. Kennedy in 1963 (I’m putting conspiracy theories to one side) and the museum explores the events leading up to and following the assassination, as well as a very detailed retelling of the shooting itself.

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Old Red Museum, with JFK Memorial in the foreground

The Old Red Museum holds a rich collection focussed on social history. It tells the story of Dallas from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, and must be a fantastic resource for local schools as it covers all aspects of life and State – law, politics, manufacturing, commerce, sport, culture, and education. The ground floor is dominated by the gorgeous neon ‘large red horse’ (Pegasus), the Magnolia Oil logo that was once on top of the Magnolia building (now a hotel). There is also a temporary display on WWII – I didn’t know that Dallas had played such a big role in the war effort: huge factories were constructed to make aircraft and machinery; one million temporary homes were built for factory workers who had been shipped into the area; 511 internment camps were built across the state to hold 425,000 poor souls from Germany, Italy and Russia who had the misfortune of being in the wrong country at the wrong time. The display also includes everyday objects, such as ration books and domestic appliances; and the accompanying 1940s music sets the scene.

IMG_3083Returning to the lobby, there is an amazing wrought-iron staircase leading up to the main displays on the first floor with four themed galleries arranged chronologically around a large landing. There is also a dedicated interactive gallery for children. The displays are a good mix of objects, photographs, films, and additional interpretation material such as maps, timelines and oral histories. Some stories dominate, for example:

  • the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition celebrated 100 years since the ‘liberation’ of Texas from Mexico (who knew!?) and there were many examples of tourist items  and memorabilia such as coins, ceramics, and glassware;
  • Deep Ellum (an area at the far end of Elm Street) produced the Dallas Blues and saw influential musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly perform there;
  • cotton and oil have both had a massive impact on the wealth and character of the city;
  • and finally race relations – the grim story of segregation and the fight to end it through the civil rights movement. I was pleased to see the positive contributions of women and African-Americans well represented in the displays – the mix of voices and perspectives creates a complex and dense narrative.

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There were a handful of objects that really stood out for me – the gun owned by Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde fame), and the handcuffs worn by Lee Harvey Oswald when he was shot by Jack Ruby, made a big impression. My first reaction was ‘wow – cool!’ My second reaction was more uneasy as I realised how strange it was that these objects, tied to such violent and brutal acts, had acquired such a glossy sheen. The distance of time and the glamour of Hollywood have turned them into something like celebrity relics. Seeing objects that have witnessed history is one of my absolutely favourite aspects of visiting museums – but in this case it felt inappropriate to enjoy the thrill. As I was pondering these mixed feelings, I turned a corner and encountered a deeply sinister Ku Klux Klan hood and top. It was compelling and disturbing in equal measure as I’d never seen one before. The KKK shows human nature at its worst – coming face-to-face with this horrible artifact was chilling.

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I had gone into the Old Red Museum knowing next to nothing about Dallas; I left the museum with new eyes and a whole other perspective. Walking around, I can now picture how the city looked in the 1930s, before the oil money replaced so many of the brick and marble Deco wonders with enormous glass skyscrapers. The city has both huge pride in its cultural heritage and deep rifts between races; the locals are so friendly and welcoming, living up to the reputation for Southern hospitality, and yet there is an extraordinary undercurrent of inequality and violence built into the history of the place. I bang on all the time about the importance of object-based learning, but this still took me by surprise – the experience of the Old Red Museum really hammered home to me just how powerful objects can be.

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Site of the Sixth Floor Museum. Oswald was positioned in the corner window on the sixth floor, on the left-hand face of the building (closest to the foreground)

The Sixth Floor Museum and surrounding area were incredibly busy when I visited – the ‘grassy knoll’ was covered in tourists, many taking selfies. There is an X on the tarmac that marks the exact location of the shooting – some tourists were standing in the middle of the road to get a photo up to the Book Depository building from this spot, which felt like an accident waiting to happen. Tickets for the museum are sold in half-hour windows and while I was waiting to enter at 10.30am, others were being told it was sold out until mid-afternoon. It didn’t get any less busy inside either – like any blockbuster exhibition in London, we were a large shuffling mob, queuing to get near the text panels and objects. I am not a patient person at the best of times and this scenario usually winds me up pretty quickly; fortunately, the audioguide was excellent so I could happily listen and stand at the back, glimpsing photos over shoulders and between heads, and generally getting the gist.

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JFK vs Jackie and Jackie vs JFK II, 2010, photomosaics by Alex Guofeng Cao

I thought the exhibition was well done – there are not many original objects so the majority of the display is a sequence of large text panels, well illustrated with photos, newspaper articles and videos. The story plays out in chronological order: Kennedy coming to power in 1960; controversies surrounding his presidency (his support for the Civil Rights Act was very unpopular in Texas); the sequence of events, sometimes minute-by-minute, on 22 November 1963; the press and media whirlwind that followed (including footage of Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby); extensive exploration of the conspiracy theories, eye witness testimonies and subsequent committees set up to establish what happened once and for all; and finally, Kennedy’s legacy. For some reason, Oswald’s wedding ring was on display – the brief label gave basic factual information and included the extraneous detail that, ‘the ring was made in the Soviet Union’. Not exactly light on subtext.

Again, I have really mixed emotions about the Sixth Floor Museum: on the one hand, I learnt a lot about this moment in history and the grainy amateur film footage of the shooting will never look the same again; on the other hand, it felt a bit ghoulish with shades of ambulance-chasing. It made me think about the assassination, although I probably spent as much time thinking about how weird we are as a species to want to flock to this place. Believe it or not, I really enjoyed my visit to both museums and would recommend them to others. It wasn’t the usual museum enjoyment that comes from looking at beautiful things, but the enjoyment of being uncertain and having to think about things more deeply.

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Old meets new on Main Street