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.

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