The virtue and vice of being a museum critic

The last week I was in Chicago, I met up with a friend visiting from my old hometown of Tulsa and took her to the Loyola Museum of Art (LUMA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) because both were free that Tuesday.  Sadly, most of the MCA’s upper galleries were closed for installations, but the LUMA had all of its exhibits open.  The LUMA’s special exhibit was a textiles showcase titled “Stories in Cloth: The Threads of Daily Life”.  The exhibit made me think a lot about how I approach museums, exhibit design and how my experience as a conservator gives me a different perspective than most.  I want to preface this post by saying that I found the objects in both the special and the permanent exhibits to be fascinating and beautiful, and the LUMA to be a place worth visiting.

The first thing I noticed about the textiles exhibit is that the objects were displayed in a mixed group – that is to say that there would be 20th century objects displayed next to 18th century objects, or Persian objects next to Japanese objects.  Perhaps I was rushed and didn’t read all of the exhibit signage, but I found it difficult to follow the “story” of this exhibit.  From what I could tell, there wasn’t any particular grouping of the objects, not by time period, intended use, history or geographic origin.  Some of the objects didn’t even have labels, in particular some Japanese kimonos, and so I had no idea of their significance or age.

I should note here that I was also recently in the Loyola library and Information Commons, on their north campus by the lake, and noticed a mislabeled wall hanging in one of the stairwells.  The hangings were beautiful painted cloth, but had been incorrectly labeled as “batik”.  As someone who has studied batik (I even wrote a paper on it in college) and done batik, I felt a strong urge to send an email to someone over there to let them know of their mistake.  I settled for just sending a tweet to the library’s twitter account instead. I didn’t mean to hurt their feelings (though they assured me that the Information Commons does not have feelings) but I kinda know what I’m talking about.
Sun Batik

Anyway, as I moved through the gallery rooms, I came to the last room, which had an African dance costume in the corner.  The costume was a full-body suit that had been arranged to sit in a chair from the same region.  On the wall next to the costume was another garment, also of African origin, made of leather.  I’m no textile conservator (and I can barely sew on a button) but the mounting of this object concerned me.  The garment was basically a leather shirt, with a sewn-on leather belt on the front (like a long loop from the right to the left of the front side) from which hung several iron (or similarly heavy metal) objects.  I could tell the objects were heavy because of how they stretched the leather loop down, and I wondered about the stress that was putting on the stitches attaching the loop to the rest of the garment.  I would have preferred to seen this object mounted flat, lying down in a case.

As I was examining the leather garment, two museum staff approached the seated African costume figure and began fiddling with it.  The first woman seemed to be an administrative type, while the man might have been one of the exhibit preparators.  The woman was concerned about the figure’s hand (an empty cloth glove), which was pushed up into the sleeve and the man set about trying to coax it out of the sleeve.  He asked her if there had been kids in the galleries recently, and she said no, but that it was usually the older people who mess with the exhibits.  They noticed me watching, and the man kind of grinned and somewhat jokingly said that what he was doing was really delicate work.  I said, “I know….I’m a conservator!” To which he replied, “Well, maybe you should be doing this!” I laughed and told him that I only knew how to work on books and paper, not textiles.  He told me the figure was supposed to look like it was kind of relaxing, which it really did, the way it was sort of slumped back in the chair.

I eventually wandered off, but also realized that I wasn’t sure how I felt about the mount for the seated costume either.  It had a wooden head attached, and I couldn’t see any kind of support beyond the chair it was sitting in.  There wasn’t much said on the label about it’s use, or meaning.  The posture reminded me of being the last person left in a waiting room, tired and defeated after hours of waiting and reading 3-year old copies of Reader’s Digest.

My experience also reminded me of a conundrum I often find myself in – that of the exhibit critic.  I get fidgety when I see poorly designed or written signage, or when objects are mounted inconsiderately.  I have to press my fingernails into my palm when I see objects that fell off their mounts so long ago as to have dust on them (that museum will go unnamed, but it’s fairly close to my house in Chicago).  I get flustered when a label mentions that an object was used for a particular ceremony, but says nothing of the ceremony itself!  I feel sad for objects with no labels, their meaning lost and looked over in favor of the labeled object next to them.  Sometimes I tell myself that these criticisms should be forgiven, because the museum is staffed only by volunteers (well meaning, but uneducated about preservation or proper mounting), or that their printer lost some of the labels.

Or they can’t afford the extra paper to print everything in a bigger font, or that they don’t realize that some fonts should only ever be used for children’s birthday cards and never for museum labels.

Or that maybe their framer recently got kicked in the head by a horse and so everything looks kind of slanted to him.

But always, I feel twisted with conflict when I see something that I think would be an easy fix or that is truly damaging to an object.  I worry that whoever I talk to may think I’m deranged, or that I’m some sort of snob who doesn’t understand how little money or personnel they might have to work on their exhibits.  And I do realize that many museums don’t have a conservator, or even someone trained in preservation, on their staff.  I don’t want to come off as snarky, because I truly want to help and I love museums almost as much as I love informative and grammatically correct signs.  But sometimes I just don’t know how to start that conversation, or even who to talk to!  Does anyone else have this problem?

Scared from memory

Recent travels and my arrival in Syracuse

In the past week, I have traveled over a thousand miles, through five states, and into Canada and back again. But now I am at last in Syracuse, where I will remain for the next 3 months as an intern at the Syracuse University Library. However, I don’t start until July 7th, which is more than a week from today.
The Northeastern states have always been a “here there be dragons” sort of place on my personal life-experience map. Oh sure, I’ve been to NYC a couple of times, but except for a 5-week stay in Cincinnati, I’ve never lived anywhere that was both east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line. I’ve lived in Texas, Oklahoma, Guam (when I was a baby), Minnesota, Washington (the state, not the capitol), and Illinois. I’ve had brief stays in Sarasota, Florida, Cincinnati, Portland (Oregon), and my parents live in South Carolina so I go there a couple of times a year. So my past experience in the Northeast has been only as a tourist.

Syracuse is very different from Chicago in more than a couple of ways. I live at the top of a giant hill – the kind of hill that you can’t help but almost fall down as you’re walking because it is so steep. There are no hills in Chicago, and I have come to the realization that I may lose about 5-10 pounds just by virtue of living here and having to walk up and down all these dang hills. It’s also so much quieter than Chicago – there’s a delightful dearth of police sirens, horns honking and loud teenagers.

Next, there’s the trees! Lots of trees here and in this general upstate area. I drove to Canada last week to visit a friend, and the entire time I was surrounded by trees and forest, which was basically the opposite of my drive from Chicago which was mostly flat Midwestern fields. The sky was full of storm clouds too, which gave everything a nice dramatic touch and made me feel like I was in a horror movie’s opening credits (like when the main characters are driving up to the scenic and secluded cabin in the woods).

Finally, there’s the houses. I have yet to see a one-story house in this town. Most of the houses are wooden or have wood-siding, which is in contrast to Chicago’s brick-heavy architecture. And the porches! So many porches abound, one of which I’m enjoying right now. The house I’m living in was built in the 1920’s, and I love every inch of it. Everything is made of solid wood, with little nooks and crannies and mysterious doors with crystal doorknobs everywhere.

I plan to spend this week exploring Syracuse and getting lost in order to learn my way around. In my experience I get to know a city faster if I just give myself permission to get lost and then work to find my way back home. So far I’ve got both my Wegmans card and my Price Chopper card, and I’ve located one of the asian grocery stores in town. Next I need to locate a source for some good local beer and find the best thrift store. Sometime soon I plan to visit the Corning Museum of Glass, which has been recommended by both a friend and my Pure Seaglass book.

Anthropodermic Bibliopegy at the Mütter Museum

Perhaps I’m revealing a bit too much about myself, but I have a lifelong fascination with the weird, the odd and the taboo.  Maybe it’s the anthropologist in me, maybe it’s the fact that I grew up reading books about sideshow people (Jo Jo the Dog Boy, anyone?) or maybe it’s just my scientist’s soul, curious about everything.  Either way, the Mütter Museum was one of those places that’s been on my bucket list for a looooong time and I was thrilled to finally make my pilgrimage there when I was in Philadelphia.  The Mütter was founded in 1858, a part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, with the goal to “advance the science of medicine and to thereby lessen human misery”.  The collection contains everything from human specimens to models to photographs and books.  At the Mütter you can find a skeleton of a foot, a wax model of a foot, a pickled foot and surgical implements for the treatment of feet and legs…all under the same roof!

My favorite part of the Mütter is probably the atmosphere of the place – this is no circus sideshow, but a hushed and reverent cabinet of curiosities.  It looks very similar to other 19th century museums of its day, with wooden cabinets with brass handles and glass panels that are a little bit distorted and wavy.  You have to nearly press your nose up against the glass to read the labels.  The downstairs floor is all old school, but the top floor is split between the older exhibit design and a couple of newer exhibits.

I found that there were a handful of items in the collection that were good examples of how photographs and pictures sometimes don’t really convey an idea as good as the real thing.  One of these was a case with two skeletons, side-by side – one was a modern woman, the other was a woman who had worn a tight corset all her life.  The difference between their rib cages was astonishing – there was very little room for the corseted woman’s ribs to expand, such that all the those fainting Victorian ladies suddenly make sense.

Another one of these exhibits was a plaster life-cast of Cheng and Eng, the original “Siamese twins”.  The plaster cast captured every wrinkle in their faces, and at life-size I could really imagine what it would have been like to meet them and shake their hands.  Their conjoined liver rests in a huge glass jar beneath the cast.

And then there were the human-skin books, which I didn’t realize were part of the museum’s collection until I was staring at them.  My first thought was that they were so small – most were octavo size quarter-style bindings and only one was a full leather binding.  The next thing I noticed is that the pores were really prominent, like on the back of my hand.  There was even one book that had been made with tattooed skin, but sadly the ink had faded over time and you wouldn’t know it except for the label.

Most of these anthropodermic bindings (and one wallet) were owned by surgeons, and several had notations that mentioned the source of the leather, giving a short bio and the name of the person and how they died.  The ethics of such bindings were understandably much different than how we understand them today – I do not think that most of the suppliers of the leather bequeathed themselves to their surgeons before they went under the knife.  However, I think it’s an interesting thought experiment to consider the ethics and issues surrounding these bindings, and those that have been brought up by the recent rash of “BodyWorlds” exhibitions of plastinated bodies.  I recently saw such an exhibition at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, and wasn’t very impressed.  For a so-called educational display of human anatomy, there was very little useful information presented beyond that which might be news to a 3rd grader.  I couldn’t help but keep noticing small details of the bodies, such as how all of them had obviously been lacking in decent dental hygiene during their lifetime.  These were not people who had had a comfortable life, it seemed.  And I was disturbed by their anonymity – who were these people? Why did they die and where did they live?  When their plastinated bodies finally disintegrated, what would happen to them?  Would they be buried or merely swept away into the trash and replaced with yet another body fresh from the preparation factory?

In contrast, I hardly found the human-skin bindings to be unsettling, particularly those with the annotations about the source of the leather.  The books seemed more respectful to the deceased, to name them in this object created with their flesh.  These were not objects that would have originally been on display as some kind of garish “edutainment”, but prestige objects to be handled with care by their private owners.  They were not mass-produced in a factory.

Perhaps it is unsettling to us, who live in a time that promises us average life expectancies of 70+ years, to see such a tangible reminder of our own mortality.  We want to bury death and fight it and remove any sign of aging from our faces.  We do not turn the bones of our dead.  We do not display or encourage the making of post-mortem photographs.  To contemplate holding in our hands something like a book bound in the skin of the dead seems anathema to our modern sensibilities, but I have to wonder if we shouldn’t consider what is lost when that becomes taboo.  What does it say about us, as a society, when we speak of anthropodermic bibliopegy in hushed and secretive voices, but herald the opening of a BodyWorlds exhibit on the front page of the newspaper?

Anyway, I’ve let myself ramble on yet again.  Long story short, I loved the Mütter Museum and would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of medicine or natural history collections.  Also, they have a GREAT gift shop – I came home with a conjoined gingerbreadman cookie cutter and some lavender soap that looks like the soap lady.


Thoughts on the future training of library conservators

Oh, so you thought this blog was dead, eh? Me too. But then I went to the AIC conference and now maybe I have a few things to say. Mostly things about the future of education programs for library/archives conservators, which was a discussion panel held at this year’s conference in Philadelphia. Three programs were represented on the panel – Buffalo, NYU and Winterthur/Delaware.  Others have already blogged about their interpretations of the discussion, and it’s implications for the future of library conservation training. Kevin Driedger’s post is what really prompted me to sit down and write this post, but both Jeff Peachey and Beth at PCAN have a good “who said what” outline of the discussion – if you weren’t there, go read their write-ups and come back here. My notes are a jumbled mess that barely make sense to me, let alone anyone else, but I’ve got a list of all the tweets I made while the discussion was going on in situ. Feel free to just skip ahead to the next part, though.

•Interesting to hear how library conservation edu. programs really rely heavily on adjunct faculty. Not sure if that’s a good thing.
•Those Buffalo library conservation students have it extra good – they get an extra $1K stipend than the other students. WHAT.
•Wish they had given us a list of the admission req. for these programs. They all seem to be quite different. One requires German!
•”Offer more entry-level jobs for recent grads . Too many ppl fall into that 2-5 years of experience gap.” AMEN
•So far nobody has addressed the issue of too many grads, not enuf jobs. Lotta talk about equipment and labs, rare book issues.
•”Different relationship to objects and identity in the library. May be a challenge to conservators”. Do the programs address this?
•More institutions req. a MLIS for conservation jobs. Prog’s offering flexibility in curriculum to give students access to the MLIS.
•NYU program constrained in that they HAVE to give an art history degree. So [MLIS] degree has to be gotten after the program.
•Finally someone has brought up the job issue again. Museums can’t provide as many internships bc they have had too many staff cuts.
•None of the library conservation programs have increased the # of students each year. (But maybe it’s still too many?)
•The UT program created ppl who became advocates for libraries, not just conservation. Ppl who can think of the Coll. as a whole.
•Programs need to train ppl to address the institut’l needs of libraries, not just shoehorn conservators into a new type of conserv.
•”Critical: how are Lib&archives dif. than museums? How to train students in light of these differences?”
•”critical: training for born-digital works. This is where all the new material is in libraries/archives”. Aka it ain’t all like the Morgan.

Since I love lists, I’m going to give a breakdown of my biggest concerns regarding discussion about the education of library/archives conservators, some of which were addressed by the panelists and some of which were hardly brought up at all.  It’s also worth noting here than I’m a graduate of the program-formerly-known-as-the-Kilgarlin-center at UT Austin. So take my musings with a grain of salt, particularly since I’m also a conservator in private practice with one foot in the lab and another in archives (the processing/filing side of things, that is) and the digital lands.

1) All three of the programs have the library science component just kind of tacked on – none offer a full MLIS within the expected time of study. In contrast, at UT you came out with both a full MLIS and the “Certificate of Advanced Study” in conservation, after 2 years of classes and an internship year. I can’t say for certain just how many library conservator jobs require a MLIS (or MSIS, etc) but it seems like not having the degree could be a pretty big gap in one’s future job prospects as a library conservator. There is only so much value in handskills and benchwork if you cannot advocate for your profession, your job position and your projects. Again, maybe I’m being paranoid…but I fear that without a strong emphasis on the LIBRARY component of library conservation, these programs may be leading their graduates toward the old “Ivory Tower” (or ivory basement, as it usually is) mindset. Working in a library is about being part of a system, of an organization – and I see library science as the compass to navigate that system for the benefit of the collection.

2) There was a lot of talk about “collaboration” and partnering with other institutions to provide the full training experience. However, none of these programs have the capability to offer all the necessary components (i.e. treatment training, binding skills training, benchwork opportunities, library science classes, etc.) by themselves. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but what happens if one of these collaborating institutions has to bail on the conservation program? Suddenly you are sitting on a 2-legged stool…

3) There was little discussion about digitization, or collections care or really much to do about anything that could be construed as preservation projects or other library-wide projects that conservators are often responsible for in archives and academic libraries. A LOT of the discussion geared towards the training of conservators in rare book treatments, conservation science and the use of expensive analytical equipment (i.e. things whose name contains the letter “X” or the word “scanning”), that most small-to-medium sized academic libraries don’t own or have access to. Someone who’s only interned at the Morgan Library (which I think is an awesome library, btw) or some other very fancy, private library is going to have a very rude awakening when they realize that those 19th cen. publisher’s bindings they’re planning to treat are also going right back into the circulating collection for any undergrad to throw into their backpack. I worry that a focus on (or an avoidance of anything except) rare book/single item treatment is overlooking a critical part of a library/archives conservator’s job and the accompanying skills that are needed for such work in libraries that include both circulating and special collections materials.

4) Jobs. Jobs. JOBS! Where are they? What are these programs going to do for their graduates, who will be entering a TERRIBLE job market that has continued to whittle away at the ability of conservators to pay their bills and eat food not purchased with food stamps? Are graduates going to be able to come right out of the program, degree in hand, and get a real, entry-level job without having to go for a second degree (a la NYU, which only gives out an art history degree) or another year of unpaid interning? I understand that it’s not the entire responsibility of the education programs to find jobs for their graduates, but I’d like to see more of an acceptance about the possibility that graduates may end up in private practice rather than in an institution. Are these programs going to be teaching grant-writing, insurance shopping or self-advertising skills?  Has there been a good dialogue between those in charge of hiring library/archives conservators and preservation administrators, and the directors of these education programs?  Are they on the same page regarding what skills the former wants and what the latter is teaching to the students?

I could keep going on, but as usual I have more questions than answers at this point.  The panel was rather eye-opening and I hope that the topic can be revisited every couple of years at the conference and perhaps more frequently in the blogosphere/twitterverse/internet tubes/etc.