Archives for May 2006

Found objects 2 – material culture edition

The Natural History Museum, London’s Antarctic Conservation Blog has been describing some interesting pieces of material culture.

Coop of Positive Ape Index is totally in love with some old tools. Really.

Mister Jalopy salivates over a Christie’s auction that includes a Laughing Drunkard Coin Operated Automaton–and he kindly provides photos. In an earlier post, he finds a childhood in a jar.

Continuing its “Cool Things” series of podcasts, the Kansas Museum of History has published a new episode, this one on a leg brace for a woman who had been afflicted with polio as a child.

Found objects

In the series “Found Objects,” I’ll be sharing sites and blog posts that may be of interest to museum professionals.

The folks at Ideum have begun a central clearinghouse for museum blogs, Be sure to check out the other museum blogs listed there, some of which you may have already discovered through the blogroll here on Museum Blogging. And if you haven’t yet read it, check out Ideum’s survey of museum blogs and community sites.

Glenda Sims provides a nice summary of the Museums and the Web conference. I’m grateful that the post drew my attention to Curating the City: Wilshire Blvd; what a wonderful site! Sims also blogged about her experiences at a Digital Storytelling Bootcamp for Museums.

The Canadian Heritage Information Network recently unveiled the Knowledge Exchange, “an online space for museum professionals and volunteers, promoting community engagement through the use of relevant technologies.” Be sure to check it out.

Blogging Pedagogy considers “digital curation” in the context of a post about mobile blogging.

Live from LRMA points us to a list of fictional works that feature art conservators or restorers and Encyclopedia Smithsonian’s guide and reference list on the appraisal of objects.

Paul Marty of Musematic considers the state of museum research. An excerpt:

as more museum professionals work to integrate media and technology into their museums, it will become even more important that regularized data benchmarks be established to allow for comparisons between projects and to help others avoid re-inventing the wheel each time a new project is started.

Brent Gustafson of the Walker Art Center shows us how to hack the iPod operating system to make it useful for audio tours.

Nina Puurunen of Museoblogi considers censorship in museums and how to best write the history of museums, a subject near and dear to my heart.

Found History considers the utility of Yahoo’s Taglines as an historical resource.

Thoughts on craft: the problem with hierarchies

I’ve been following with some interest the relatively new blog craft research. According to its own description,

Craft Research is the blog for the Craft Research team at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee, UK. The team is conducting a major research project funded by the Art and Humanties Research Council entitled “Past, Present & Future Craft Practice: exploration of the inter-relation between skill, intent and culture”. This blog serves both as a networking device for team members, and as a means of exploring ideas as they evolve with a wider audience.

Throughout its three-month history, its contributors have been discussing definitions of craft. For example, Liz Donald writes,

I was interested to read that in Australia craft of exceptional quality of workmanship, uniquene and refined, and show a degree of problem solving, creative intellegence and innovation, is classed as ‘Art Craft’. In the USA the same criteria is used to but called ‘Fine Craft’. In the UK I have found no distinction in the crafts. Everything is lumped together. What do you think?

I’ve been thinking about definitions of craft quite a bit lately, which might seem a bit odd for an academic whose current project is on the history of science. My next project, however, will be focused on hobbies and crafts. And I do see some connections between women’s place in the sciences and women’s craft work.

A recent post written by the project’s principal investigator, Georgina, both piqued my interest and raised my hackles. An excerpt:

Time to move on. The practice of crafts, and the arena in which crafts operate has changed, not is changing. We have to see a future, so, what aspect of craft practice? Can we move into a new paradigm? I suggest that we start to look at the intellectual basis, seeing the thinking process, not the happy clappy hands that everyone keeps referring to, (i.e. make it but don’t think about it, or the home therapy session), is not what is meant by a system of thought that moves through the processes and materials, using each and every aspect of making as additive to practice. Until this is accepted as the boundary for fine crafts you are lost in icing sugar! Sweet, synthetic and too much makes you sick!

She concludes with an invitation for engagement with this “intellectual basis,” and says “I will respond with works that I can identify as fine crafts.”

I understand that within any study, the researchers need to define their area of study. Otherwise, the project’s scope can become too large to address in a single article or book. That said, an attempt to define “fine craft” seems especially risky and high-stakes.

photo by Michael and Felicity

Part of the problem with defining an object as “fine craft” or “art” is that the object may be defined as merely everyday handiwork in one decade may be praised as art or fine craft in the next. Take, for example, the the quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The quilts and the African-American women who created them were “discovered” by the U.S. art establishment earlier this decade and exhibited at the Whitney Museum and elsewhere. Since then, the quilts have been celebrated in a book and their designs licensed for use in rugs.

Another problem with Georgina’s desire to focus on the intellectual effort of craft comes from the fact that poor African-American women in the South have not usually been associated with intellectual practice. Segments on NPR and PBS reveal that these women do think about their aesthetic choices and see their quilts as individual creative achievements. But outsiders have not always recognized their quilts as such.

It’s easy, I think, to look at much of the production on Craftster, Etsy, and whip up as amateurish and, to borrow Georgina’s phrase, “happy clappy.” But it’s not always clear what separates the most original and technically accomplished (again, both value judgments) work on these sites from “professional” work featured on, for example, design*sponge.

The craft-art boundary is increasingly blurred, and I think that’s a good thing, especially for women. I worry that setting up a further hierarchy within craft–by distinguishing some craft as “fine” or “high”–could hurt the thousands upon thousands of women who hope to sell their work and become self-supporting, as then standard-issue craft becomes less valuable (culturally and monetarily) than fine craft.

A similar phenomenon has occurred again and again in the natural sciences in the U.S., where work undertaken by women becomes undervalued or made invisible. In the course of my dissertation work, I’ve learned that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women specimen collectors who sold or donated their collections to museums were not considered to be undertaking scientific work, even though they followed scientific guidelines for preserving their specimens and recording information about them. If they weren’t undertaking original research, they weren’t scientists. Similarly, women who sold seeds or ran nurseries were not recognized as scientists even if they hybridized new species. Women scientists who worked in museums were expected to undertake both outreach to amateurs and laypeople and to conduct original research on the collections, but only their research for a professional audience was considered real scientific work.

In short, narrow definitions of science have kept women from being recognized for work that is indeed scientific and that, if presented in another light, might have brought them some prestige. Instead of being dismissed as a “seedswoman” or “nurserywoman,” for example, a woman who hybridized plants would earn more acclaim if we called her a “biotech pioneer.”

And that’s why I’m hesitant to embrace a hierarchy of craft. Such a schema makes craft less democratic; it closes off possibilities, economic and social and cultural, for women.

(cross-posted at BlogHer)

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Multimedia presentation on taxidermy–and an aside on women in natural history

It’s not a museum site, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has put together a nice slide show, with a voice over by self-described “taxidermologist” and Carnegie Museum of Natural History collections manager Stephen Rogers, on “The Art of Taxidermy.”

This multimedia piece is marked by lovely photography and Rogers’s clear passion for his subject.

That said, I must take issue with one of Rogers’s assertions: he claims it’s only in the past 50 or 100 years that taxidermists began mounting habitat groups–that is, groups of animals represented in their environments. In fact, Colorado resident Martha Maxwell was crafting habitat groups in the third quarter of the 19th century; she exhibited a large habitat group of flora and fauna at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Rogers’s statement is just another example of how women “get disappeared” from the history of natural history in the U.S.

I’d like to see more museums make transparent the processes by which they produce their exhibits and conduct research. Doing so, of course, garners the attention of foundations and big donors, but it also can make visible those workers who tend to be rendered invisible by the ways we talk about science: technicians, assistants, and women (even those of some stature, such as the early 20th-century curators I’m writing about in my dissertation).

An elephant in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
(Photo by Leslie Madsen-Brooks.)

Podcasts at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has unveiled a series of podcasts created by students. New media content producer Cassandra Good explains:

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a special project here at SAAM in which Advanced Placement Art History students from the Holton-Arms and Landon Schools here in Washington, D.C. visited our Renwick Gallery of American Craft. Their assignment was to research one of our artworks and produce a podcast about the piece they chose.

Hearing the students’ unique interpretations was an interesting experience for the Eye Level team. Watching them view the art with fresh eyes was one thing. Hearing what they had to say and how they developed their voice, well, we were impressed. And we have picked five podcasts we think you’ll find interesting.

The podcasts include a closer look at Grant Wood’s Victorian Survival and Lilies of the Alley, William Morris’s Raft, Binh Pho’s Journey of Destiny, Norm Sartorius’s Spoon From a Forgotten Ceremony, and Wendell Castle’s Ghost Clock.

Victorian Survival by Grant Wood

Definitely worth a listen; there’s some real thoughtfulness in these productions. Go check them out.