Good Tidings, Williamsburg Edition

As followers of my previous blog, The Fanciful Lobster, may remember, I make my own holiday cards every year. Initially, this served as my proverbial fist-shaking at the consumerism of the holidays, but with seven years’ worth of cards under my belt, it’s now become a tradition unto itself. It’s my way of checking in on family and friends, all while sending them a hand-pulled print to boot.

Every year I vary the technique and subject matter, with the only stipulation being that the card reflects based on my surroundings. The first year I was in Roswell, for example, I made a dragonfly print in reference to the dragonfly festival I attended at Bitter Lakes. Last year, I made an ox print based on a fresco by Peter Hurd that I had seen at Los Poblanos, one of my favorite places in New Mexico. Having recently moved to Virginia, and with Brandon starting an exciting new job as a senior preparator at Colonial Williamsburg, I decided a print referencing CW was in order. After wandering around the complex and looking at the various edifices, I decided on this little building:

Since I don’t have access to a printing press at the moment, I decided to make a linocut so I could print these at home.  I had already done a relief print last year, so I decided to make a white line print, a 20th-century technique that works quite well with architecture. Instead of carving out the areas you want to leave blank, you carve out the outlines only, and color each resulting section individually.

Having decided on a technique, I spent the next few nights abstracting and simplifying the building. I thought about painting the background blue or green, as you see below, but I decided to save myself a little work and leave it white.

I pulled out one of my linoleum pieces and carved the image. The one on the left is the first attempt. I thought it was too lopsided so I carved it a second time. The final image is crooked too, but it was less pronounced. I also thought the imperfections added a vernacular sort of charm.

 It was then time to print the images. To ensure consistent registration, I taped each sheet to the top of the linoleum, allowing me to flip back and forth easily while I colored in each new section. Since it takes a few minutes to prepare each part, I chose slow-drying oil paints so I wouldn’t feel rushed. I then printed one color at a time, from yellow, to red, to blue, and finally a brownish-purple for the steps. I cheated for the railings by drawing them in with a micronpen, as they turned out sloppy when printed.

I deliberately went with a primary color scheme because I wanted a bright, colorful image. Primary colors are also associated with stability and simplicity (think of Wonderbread and children’s toys), which also felt appropriate. Brandon and I both like Williamsburg and the opportunities we’ve had here so far, so I wanted to visually convey how content we feel being here.

The beauty of relief printing is that you can change your colors to add variety, and I certainly did that for these prints. Some impressions featured bright yellows, while others were more brown or ochre. The print above, for example, featured lighter blue windows. 

In a few instances, I made the building green because the blue accidentally mixed with the yellow.  They’re just especially attuned to holiday colors.

Once the prints were finished, I pasted them onto card stock. Rather than settle on a single color, I found a package containing red, gray, and tan cardstock and got that.

This was a satisfying project to finish. I wasn’t sure I would have time to make cards this year, but by working for an hour or night, printing 3-4 cards at a time, I was able to finish this project within a couple of weeks.

I admittedly haven’t been sketching much since going back to grad school, but this project showed me that I can continue to make artwork while still having plenty of time for studying. I intend on remembering that for next semester by setting smaller daily sketching goals for myself. As long as you’re making something, it counts.

Deck the Halls, Williamsburg Edition

Colonial Williamsburg loves the holiday season. From its fireworks-laden Grand Illumination to ornament making at the Aldrich Rockefeller Museum, it embraces December festivity. I appreciate good holiday decorations myself, so with the semester winding down and projects wrapping up, I took a break with Brandon to go look at the them.

Of all the decorations, I was most interested in the wreaths. Each building featured a wreath or similar arrangement festooned with details referencing regional customs. Tavern buildings featured cutlery or tinware cups, for example, while other more broadly acknowledged Virginia traditions through dried tobacco leaves, oyster shells, or, pineapples, a symbol of hospitality affiliated with CW especially.

I ended up taking enough pictures to do my own variation on those posters of old doors you find in a lot of museum or historical society gift shops.

I could go into a much deeper analysis with all of these, but it’s the end of semester, so today I’ll just sit back and enjoy them. 

Good tidings, everyone.

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.