Semester Project 3: American Capitalisms

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been telling you about the final projects I’ve been working on for the semester. Today we’ll wrap up by taking a look at the paper I’ve been writing for American Capitalisms.  I’ve been writing about museums as consumers, and the ways in which they use material goods and services to cultivate relations between visitors, businesses, and other museums.

This book inspired me to look at museums through the lens of commodity use.

I became interested in consumer culture while reading one of our class-assigned books, Empire of Things, and decided to take a closer look at museums. Rather than focus on collections, however, I’ve been more interested in the role of mundane stuff, the paper, matboard, pencils, paint, and other materials that enable museums to fulfill various social and cultural functions.  For examples, I’ve been using my experiences at the Roswell Museum, as I had plenty of opportunities there to observe how it uses things to engage different publics.

Aside from the number of paintings, Magical and Real featured heavier commodity use than other shows I’ve worked on at the Roswell Museum, including paint, text vinyl, larger text panels, and amplified advertising.

Museum literature rarely discusses commodities directly, taking their necessity to operations as a given. Analyses of physical museum spaces such as Carol Duncan’s Civilizing Rituals explore the ways in which museums architecturally emulate the sacrosanct atmosphere of temples or churches, but these works focus primarily on aesthetic impact rather than the actual implementation of commodities. Analyses of exhibition planning, educational programs, or other activities generally focus on intellectual objectives or the logistics of implementation without discussing the actual commodities required to implement them. Financial discussions about museums also deemphasize commodities, focusing instead on the omnipresence of tight budgets. While studies recognize the challenge of meeting overhead costs, they do not discuss the actual commodities comprising these operations, reiterating instead an established narrative of museums as struggling institutions facing dwindling sponsorship and visitation.  

Like many museums, RMAC started an informal after-hours event in 2017 called pARTy After Hours. Read through the activities on this postcard and you’ll start to get a sense of the kinds of stuff these events need.

Yet museums are significant consumers, and their various activities employ a variety of material goods and services. The reifying presentations of objects that Duncan describes rely on objects such as pedestals, light fixtures, customized paints, and other material products designed to create a liminal spatial experience and underscore the specialness of the objects within it.  Object conservation and preservation is equally invested in things, with acid-free mats, Mylar sheeting, twill tape, foam core for mounts, hygrothermograph readers, and a litany of other products required to maintain the safety of various collections. Classes, special programs, and other education initiatives require supplies such as paint, paper, or pencils, while on a grander scale, an expectation toward universal design and accessibility requires spending on architecture.

And of course, no museum is complete without a gift shop. Roswell in particular has bee revamping its merchandise for the last couple years to better reflect the collections and increase brand recognition.


Whereas my other two projects have directly addressed the Roswell Museum’s WPA archive, I took a more contemporary approach with this paper. Partly I did this so that I wouldn’t feel typecast or burnt out by those materials. After all, I don’t want to be a one-trick pony who can only write about one subject. At the time time, I also wanted to put some of my own very real working experiences within an academic context. As a curator, I spent plenty of time thinking about the practical challenges of fulfilling different program needs. This paper gave me a chance to put those observations into a more scholarly context.

Of the three projects, this has been the hardest assignment to complete, but not because I’m unfamiliar with the subject matter. There’s simply too much ground to cover in a single term paper, and to do the depth of analysis I’d like would require months, if not years, of additional research. Still, writing this paper has shown me that there’s a lot of potential, and that between my academic and professional experiences, I can bring different perspectives to museum studies.

Semester Project 2: Digital Humanities

Last week I talked about what I’ve been doing in my Intro to American Studies class. Today I’ll talk about my main project in Digital Humanities.

The first part of this project is something you’ve already been looking at: this website. Since I had already made a website for myself over the summer to document my museum work, I had a head start on this endeavor. Once I picked WordPress as my platform and settled on a template, I copied and pasted material while updating the text to emphasize current work.

As mentioned last week, the cover image is a picture I took of this giant map in my study. Whereas my previous website included images of past work (in large part because I didn’t know which classes I was taking at the time), I wanted to emphasize the present with this one.

The second part is what you see when you click on the link “Roswell Museum Federal Art Center,” located in the main menu. This takes you to a Scalar book I’ve been working on about the early history of the Roswell Museum.

Scalar is a platform that allows for more open-ended browsing than conventional books, and allows you to easily incorporate text, images, visualizations, video, and more. I like to think of it as a super blog.

This announcement about upcoming classes and workshops is typical of the kind of documentation in the archive. Putting it in a Scalar book with captions and additional body text provides context for visitors.

Like my website, this project is based on preemptive work I did when I was still working at the museum. Shortly before I left my position there, I completed two projects relating to its archive. One was an exhibition, on view until mid-2019 or so. The other was a draft for a guidebook. The museum last published a guidebook on its collections in the early 1980s, so it’s been due for an update. Rather than create one big guidebook covering everything,  however, the director and I had been mapping out a plan to publish a series of smaller guidebooks on different facets of the collections, allowing visitors to pick and choose which holdings they’d like to learn more about. We imagined having different experts write these books, whether it was the curator, a contract scholar, or someone else. To kick off this project, I wrote the draft for the WPA guidebook. Since I keep all of my writing in cloud storage, I still have access it, so I had a working text that I could revise and expand for a new project.

Installation show of the Community-Minded exhibition, the last show I finished for the Roswell Museum.

I’ve also been thinking about the need to digitize the museum’s historical archive for a while now. Back in 2016, when I was starting to explore the archive in earnest, I gave a paper at the annual Mountain Plains Museum Association conference suggesting that the museum eventually create an interactive website. Visitors to that site could track different exhibitions on their cross-country travels, follow a day in the life at the museum through the perspectives of the different people who worked there, and other activities. What I was describing was essentially a DH project, though I didn’t know it at the time because I wasn’t as familiar with the terminology then.

MPMA that year took place in Oklahoma City, which I’d never visited before. More importantly, it was the first time I presented my interest in the archive publically, and the first time I seriously began considering the possibility of writing a dissertation about it.

The Scalar book I’ve been working on is a modest version of what I recommended in that presentation. A project like that would take years to complete, and I simply don’t have enough time in the semester to do that. Instead, I opted for a platform where I provide a basic narrative of the museum’s early history to give readers context, and then go into greater detail into certain areas rather than try to cover everything. My discussion of exhibitions, for example, provides a survey of all the shows for 1937-1942, but goes into greater analysis for the first year of operation, 1937-1938, largely because this one is the most complete in terms of documentation. For this year, I use graphs, timelines, and other visualizations to provide readers with some kind of analysis.

Standing at the foyer looking into the main gallery. The show you see in there was exhibited in January 1938. It’s a selection of plates from the Index of American Design, combined with a sow of local antiques. The Roswell Museum staff frequently invited the public to exhibit their own items in conjunction with FAP shows to give a sense of ownership over the materials.

Example of the charts I’ve been working on. This one breaks down the traveling exhibitions by medium for the year 1937-1938.

The long-term objective of this project is to help gather interest in the long-term future of the Roswell Museum’s digital presence. Over the next several years, I’d like to fully digitize the museum’s archive and upload it to a platform such as Omeka, which specializes in online archives and collections. I’d also like to see that Omeka site include several online exhibitions that delve into the topics I had mentioned in my 2016 talk in order to give visitors context for what they’re looking at.

Scalar works well for my current project but the archive would probably benefit most from Omeka in terms of full digitization.

My ultimate objective for this project extends beyond the Roswell Museum itself. I envision linking that Omeka archive to a national project that maps out all of the different art centers and recreates their travel infrastructures. I imagine visitors clicking on an individual site within that map and being taken to a site like the Roswell Museum’s, where they can learn about specific institutions. While my dissertation will be a written project, ideas like these make me think it should have a digital component too, something that people around the world can use.

So yes, this is definitely something I can’t complete in a semester, and it’s something I can’t do on my own. If I can attract interest and potential grant funding through a project such as the Scalar book though, something that provides a sufficient overview and explains why a larger project is necessary, that’s a good start to me.

Semester Project 1: Intro to American Studies

For each of my classes this semester, I’ve been working on a larger project synthesizing the major ideas of the course with my own research interests. This week, I’ll tell you what I’ve been working on, beginning with my Intro to American Studies project.

This class has focused on laying the groundwork for our future theses and dissertations, depending on whether we’re MA or Ph.D. students. As a result, each week we’ve been sharing our project ideas with the rest of the group, along with some articles relating to the theme, and listening to feedback or suggestions from our classmates. From there, we take those ideas and work them into the larger project. Since our professor wants these projects to be something we can use in the future, they’ve been taking on different forms reflecting each student’s needs. For some, it’s a paper that will build into a thesis, others might compile an annotated bibliography, and so forth.

My project is essentially an overview of the materials I currently have (ie the Roswell Museum archive), a list of sources or archives I can begin consulting, and potential research questions to guide me in the future. The first part of the project consists of a research paper summarizing the work I’ve already done, and what I need to do in the future. The bulk of this paper focuses on the Roswell Museum archive, which is the information I have available. Rather than make a specific argument about the archive, I’ve compiled my observations about it, including what’s represented, what isn’t, and what I might need to take another look at should I return to Roswell for a research trip.

The map in my study. I’ve been using stickers to mark out each of the art centers.

Now you know where the cover image on my website came from.

I also talk about the broader community art center program, or at least what I know of it. Over the course of the semester, I’ve been mapping out art center locations on a giant map in my study, which has really helped me reframe the project. Florida, for example, had the most art centers (with 18, compared to New Mexico’s 3),  which has encouraged me to reframe my geographic thinking on the south. Being a segregated state, I’ve also learned that several of these art centers were established specifically for black communities, which makes me wonder whether or not they showed the same traveling exhibitions that served white art centers. While I’ve had to accept that I can’t write about all of the art centers, seeing them on a map is helping me to rethink how to approach this massive topic.

Beyond the paper itself, I’ve also been putting together a bibliography and a list of resources. Since several art centers still operate as museums today, I’ll most likely target these first, as they’re likely to have their archives intact. I’ve also been thinking about how to access the art centers that did close, whether it’s through contacting state archives, reading period newspapers, or other alternative sources.

The number of Florida art centers really helped me recenter my focus away from New Mexico exclusively. Just look at them all!

Most significantly, perhaps, I’ve been thinking about the guiding questions I can use to help frame the dissertation when it comes time to write the prospectus. I’m still interested in travel infrastructures, but I’m also considering moving into reception theory and learn more about how local communities responded to these art centers and their national exhibition programs. I’ve also been thinking about how to narrow down case studies. Obviously the Roswell Museum and Art Center will be one, but I’d like to consider different geographic areas such as Florida or Oregon. Another way to approach it is to focus on art centers that still operate in one form or another, a focus that would give me the benefit of arguing ongoing relevance.

In essence, this project has no definitive answers or arguments, but that’s beside the point. My real objective here is to stay focused on the dissertation and lay the groundwork for prospectus writing in another year or so, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to get a head start on that.

Iris Trio, Part 2

Last week I started talking about an iris print I had been wanting to make. This week I’ll show you how it turned out. I completed this project over the summer, before I moved to Williamsburg.
 
I began this project by going through my sketches. I eventually settled on three flowers, each drawn between 2017 and 2018. One was drawn in town, while the others were from the Hondo Iris Farm. Once I had the three flowers, I drew them all together in a single composition:
When I was satisfied with the composition, I covered it with tracing paper and drew in the outlines.
I then applied this outline to the back of a thin sheet of Plexiglas, and drew in the design with an etching needle. I had settled on making this an intaglio print, as that is most akin to drawing, and would allow me to maintain the spirit of the original sketches.
 
It took me two weeks to finish the design, as the plate measures about 11″ x 14″. Once it was finished, I took it down to the museum.
I started printing it in black, but then I grew adventurous and started printing it in different colors, specifically red and blue.

Iris Trio, blue, 2018
Iris Trio, blue, 2018

Iris Trio, red, 2018

I made a total of six impressions. Half of them I left as is, but the other half I painted in by hand. Each one probably took about an hour to paint, and I made a point of varying the color scheme, allowing me to channel the colors and patterns of the other flowers I’d drawn over the years.

Iris Trio, 2018

This was a very satisfying project to complete. After thinking about it for years, it was nice to actually finish something.

Iris Trio, Part 1

When I was living in Roswell, I became interested in drawing iris. I’ve long appreciated these flowers for their dramatic, ruffled petals and rich colors, but southeast New Mexico, as it turns out, is replete with them. I could find them growing all around Roswell in the spring, and the Roswell Museum collection itself boasted several lovely paintings of them, most notably the hauntingly lovely Iris from Henriette Wyeth.

There was also the Hondo Iris Farm up the road in San Patricio,  a small village about 50 miles west of Roswell (and home to artists Henriette Wyeth and Peter Hurd).

Image courtesy of http://www.hondoirisfarm.com/

In short, there was no shortage of flowers to draw, and each spring I made large sketches of blooming iris. Every year I thought about making a large print with them, only to put it off for another spring.

Once I found out I was heading back to graduate school, however, I decided it was time to make good on my intentions. I knew once I moved I was unlikely to revisit my New Mexico drawings, so it was now or never.

Stay tuned to see what I made.

Why a New Website?

After weeks of planning, copying, and pasting, my new website is live and ready for viewing.

William Gropper, Study for Construction of the Dam, 1938, image courtesy of http://americanexperience.si.edu/historical-eras/the-great-depression-wwii/pair-relief-blues-construction-of-the-dam/

Yet why bother with a new website at all? After all, wasn’t the site I built over the summer serviceable? The answer is yes and no, so today I’d like to explain why I made a new site.

When I created my previous site, I wasn’t enrolled in any classes yet, let alone digital humanities. My primary focus was documenting my previous work, museum and otherwise, so working with a single platform like Wix was fine. With the digital humanities class, however, I needed a hosting site where I could work with multiple web-building apps like Scalar or WordPress. So I went to Reclaim Hosting, a host geared toward academics, and bought myself a domain. The website you’re looking at here was made with WordPress, but the DH project I’m working on now will be a Scalar piece, which allows you to publish interactive online books. In the long term, I’m looking into building an archive for the Roswell Museum’s historical documents using Omeka, a platform that specialized in archives and online exhibitions.

Image courtesy of https://reclaimhosting.com/

Speaking of domains, that’s another reason why I wanted to build a new site. When it comes to searching, you want a domain that’s easy to remember but still reflects your work. I was planning on changing my less than memorable domain on my previous site, but since I was already building a new one, I focused my attention on Reclaim Hosting.

But why call my website Sara Woodbury in Transit? Isn’t it enough to have my name? As it turns out,  there’s another writer out there named Sarah Woodbury with her own website, so I didn’t want to get the two sites confused. I added the tagline “in transit” because it playfully references my interest in travel infrastructures and their role in the production and reception of art, not to mention my own habit of moving around the country in search of new opportunities.

The backdrop image is a detail of a giant map in my study, where I’ve been identifying the locations of different community art centers

That’s the story behind my new site. The other one was fine, but rather than simply document my old work, this one will allow me to share what I’m working on now. After all, I’m here to move forward, not rest on my laurels, so I’m excited to continue building my web presence.

What I’m Taking This Semester

So now that you know why I’m in graduate school, what does my actual schedule look like? This semester I’m taking three seminars: Intro to American Studies, American Capitalisms, and Digital Humanities.

We’ve been reading selections from this book, among others

Intro to American Studies is well, just that: an introduction to American Studies as a discipline. You learn about the history of the field, what the dominant methodological approaches tend to be, and where it’s heading in the near future. I took similar courses for art history, but the biggest difference I’ve noticed so far is the openness. There isn’t really a singular, canonical American Studies; rather it’s more about your own interests, and the interdisciplinary approaches you can take to turn your interests into research. Some folks might be more focused on history, others gender or queer theory, still others postcolonialism. It can be exciting or frightening depending on how much structure you prefer to have. Personally I like the open-endedness of it, otherwise I’d be in a more traditional field like history, or art history.

We read about a book a week for American Capitalisms

American Capitalisms looks at the historical and theoretical frameworks behind our capitalist society. Each week we read a book, a couple of articles, and discuss them. So far the main thing I’ve gotten is that capitalism is a lot more than an economic system. It’s a cultural framework that influences just about every aspect of our society, from gender relations to racialization. I’ve also learned that capitalism isn’t really the monolith we imagine it to be, but a variety of systems that reflect different social needs and cultural values. Given my research interests in transportation, infrasturcture, and art accessbility, I thought this would be an appropriate course for getting a better sense of the broader trends in American economic and cultural history.

One of the first books we read in Digital Humanities

Digital Humanities is a foundational course for what’s still a relatively new field. Digital Humanities essentially applies digital tools and techniques to history, anthropology, the Internet itself, and more. It’s most commonly associated with archive or exhibition-driven websites (an outstanding one is the Colored Conventions from the University of Delaware), but it also encompasses data organization techniques and other less visible forms. I don’t have a background in Digital Humanities myself, but I’ve been an observer on the periphery for a while, and as a scholar in the 21st century I believe I should at least be familiar with it. I also thought it would be a useful way to help me organize the data I’ve collected from the Roswell Museum, and possibly future data from other archives.

I’m also playing the flute in the William and Mary Wind Ensemble. It’s technically a class, but I’m in it for recreational purposes. Being in a group ensures that I practice regularly, and it’s an important outlet from my coursework.
So that’s what I’m up to right now. I won’t be starting my actual dissertation for a couple of years, but these classes and others are definitely helping me think about how to approach it as that time gets nearer, all while having the opportunity to learn about new things.

Why I’m Here

It occurred to me earlier today that I haven’t explained why I’m in graduate school at William and Mary. After all, I had a pretty comfortable job working as a curator at the Roswell Museum. Why would I drop all of that to return to the life of a student? Today I’d like to answer that question.
I’m here because I’m interested in the dynamic between travel infrastructures and art, and the ways in which railroads, highways, and other forms of transportation shape what kind of art gets shown (or not), and by whom (or not). More specifically, I’m interested in the travel infrastructure underpinning the Community Art Center program, a WPA initiative supervised by the Federal Art Project during the 1930s and early 1940s.
I became interested in this project during my time at the Roswell Museum, which was originally a federal community art center. Marvelously enough, the museum still has its WPA archive, and I started perusing it a couple of years ago while working on another project. Reading about the museum’s history was interesting, but what really intrigued was the network supporting it, the vast infrastructure that was hinted at through letters, receipts, and other documents.
I started thinking about art and travel back in 2014 when I read Transporting Visions by Jennifer Roberts. Focusing on the 18th and 19th centuries, Roberts discusses how the physical movement of art across space can influence its structure and content. Whether it’s a painting packed in a crate across the Atlantic Ocean, or a sketch drawn hundreds of miles from home in unfamiliar country, this book explores the ways in which the physical qualities of art as a transported object can shape it. While I wasn’t working on anything at the time that correlated to the questions this book asked, I liked its focus on the physical qualities of art (and what a pain it can be to move).

Magical and Real in particular had a lot of crates

What really got me reinvigorated in the dialogue between art and travel was my own experiences as a curator. I hadn’t been at the museum very long when I’d read Roberts’ book, but over the next several years I would get a lot of practical experience that would shape my scholarly interests. As part of my work with exhibition planning, I was involved in the transportation of artwork to and from the museum, and I did a lot of it myself. I’ve driven U-Haul trucks full of art, and I once transported nearly all of the works for one exhibition, The Art of the Book, in the back of my car. Even when I wasn’t the one driving, my Registrar and I dealt with shipping companies, oversaw the packaging of art, and became familiar with all the paperwork that accompanies any art work when it travels.

The Art of the Book, or the time I moved an entire exhibition in my car.

Since these logistics were always on my mind in one for or another, I couldn’t help but think about them when I began to go through the museum’s archive. I soon realized, however, that as much as I would have loved to explore these logistics further, I’d never be able to do as I long as I was working in Roswell. Receipts and checklists don’t really lend themselves to an art exhibition the way paintings do, and more importantly, there was simply too much to do in my daily work to focus on it. There would always be exhibitions to plan, installations to oversee, and other tasks. The only way to give this project the attention it deserved was to go back to school. I had actually been debating going back for a PhD for several years, but I didn’t have a particular project or focus in mind. The Roswell Museum’s archive not only offered a lauching point, but also provided a way for my to combine my academic and museum experiences into one endeavor. My years of working in museums, and of dealing with these daily logististics, have given me a perspective that will help me immensely as I work on this project.

Image courtesy of: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roswell_Museum_and_Art_Center

So that’s how I ended up here. In future posts I’ll tell you about which classes I’m actually taking, and how they’ll help me in my research.

A New(ish) Blog? Huzzah!

Greetings! Thank you for checking my website, and for reading my blog. This online journal is all abut my ongoing adventures as a graduate student at the College of William and Mary. For readers who are already familiar with my work, this is a continuation of my old blog, The Fanciful Lobster. For new readers, welcome!

For newcomers, let me tell you a little about myself. I’m a PhD student in the College’s American Studies Program. I have a Master’s in art history from Williams College, and did my undergraduate work at Lake Forest College. I moved to Williamsburg from New Mexico about a week ago, so I’m still settling in here.
Before going back to school for my doctorate, I spent five years as the Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico. I’ve also held curatorial positions at Shelburne Museum, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the National Museum of Wildlife Art. I’ve been able to work on more than forty exhibitions, including the retrospective, Magical and Real: Henriette Wyeth and Peter Hurd.

Iris Trio, 2018

So what will I talk about on this blog? I imagine a lot of it will be about my academic work, since that’s what I’ll be spending most of my time doing. I’ll also talk about any interesting sketches I do, or trips I happen to take. Basically I’ll talk about what’s happening in my life.
There are also a few other cast members in this adventure I’ll introduce you to. The first is my partner Brandon. We met while we were both working at the Roswell Museum. A  student of history, he’s currently involved with Colonial Williamsburg.

Out at the City of Rocks in New Mexico

Then there are our two cats, Gustave and Iris. They really are the ones who run the household, Brandon and I just pay the bills and feed them.
Thank you for joining me on this adventure, and I look forward to sharing this new chapter of my life with you.