Taos Center for the Arts Talk

A few weeks ago I shared some of my recent experiences with virtual conferencing. Today, I’ll talk about another virtual event that I just participated in last week, a conversation about the Community Art Center Project in New Mexico.

The poster from last week’s event.

This event was hosted on Zoom by the Taos Center for the Arts. What was especially cool about this conversation was that you were able to hear from two of the Roswell Museum’s curators: Aubrey Hobart, current Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, and myself. Aubrey and I met in person before I left, and we’ve remained in touch intermittently since then, so it was an easy and natural conversation between two people who care a lot about this institution.

Compared to a conference or symposium, this was a more informal talk. To prevent Zoom fatigue we keep the event to fifty minutes. About forty minutes or so of that time was spent talking, with the final ten minutes being reserved for questions. I spoke during the first half, where I discussed the history of the Federal Art Project, the Community Art Center Project, and finally the three different community art center sites in New Mexico at Gallup, Melrose, and Roswell. During this part of the talk, I played a slide show featuring historical images of the Roswell Museum and other sites.

Looking into the main gallery at the Roswell Museum, 1938. This is one of the pictures I showed during my part of the talk.

We then transitioned over to Aubrey, who talked about the Museum’s current layout, upcoming events and activities, and the importance of supporting this institution during what is proving to be a challenging moment in its history. COVID-19 has adversely affected the economy in southeastern New Mexico, so the Museum’s staff and funding have both been reduced. Frankly, I don’t know what the Museum’s long-term prognosis looks like, which was one of the reasons why it was important to have a current staff member speak on its behalf. Aubrey’s presence and presentation reminded viewers that the Roswell Museum is still around and serving the community, but it could use some support right now.

They say in a lot of professions that it’s not necessarily what you know that counts, but who you know, and that definitely influenced this event. The Director of the Taos Center for the Arts, Colette LaBouff (who is also a published poet and writer), was one of my coworkers at the Roswell Museum before she landed her current position. She’s been following my blog since then, and based on my previous experiences in New Mexico, thought I would be a good fit for an informal talk. When she asked me if I could think of anyone who’d like to participate with me, in turn, I immediately thought of Aubrey, as I thought it’d be a nice way to spotlight current happenings at the Roswell Museum. I may not work there anymore, but I still like to think of ways to highlight that institution.

Overall this was a fun event. While the energy I often get from live audiences wasn’t there in the same way, I still found myself getting excited and enthusiastic once I got going. It was also cool to be able to participate from across the country, and to interact with audience members despite being 2,000 miles away. Similar to my observations on virtual conferencing, Zoom conversations like this one can also enable institutions to host a variety of speakers without worrying about the cost of travel, which could be cost-prohibitive depending on the distance or schedule. Likewise, I appreciated that I was able to fit this one-hour commitment at the end of a regular workday, whereas before I would have had to set aside a day or two for travel. As nice as it would be to see these places in person (especially Taos), it’s also good to be able to work on my William & Mary commitments without compromising my schedule.

Overall, I had a good time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these kinds of events remain commonplace, at least for the immediate future.

So What Exactly is a Dissertation Prospectus, Anyway?

At the beginning of this year, a time that feels like a million years ago now, I wrote a post called “So How Exactly Do You Get a Ph.D., Anyway?” In that post, I described the basic steps you go through to get a degree in American Studies at William & Mary. Today, I’d like to take a closer look at step three on that list, the prospectus.

What is a prospectus? Essentially it’s a roadmap for a larger project such as a book, or in the case of a Ph.D. program, a dissertation. Over the course of 15-20 or so pages, you discuss what you want to write about, what chapters or organizing themes you plan to draft, which authors or methodologies you intend to use, which archival sources you’ll rely on, if applicable, and most importantly, the argument or intervention you want to make in your fields of choice. While it’s understood that the dissertation will change and evolve as you get a better grasp on the subject, the prospectus is there to demonstrate to your committee that you’re not delving into the process completely clueless about what you’re doing.

This is where I’m at right now. Over the next few months, I’ll put together my own prospectus, and plan on having my colloquium next semester.

So how do you go about writing a prospectus? On the advice of several of my more advanced cohorts, the first thing I did was get myself a dissertation journal, a place where I can write down any questions, organizing ideas, and other thoughts relating to this project. Admittedly I’ve never been a consistent journal-keeper outside of special trips, but then again I’ve never written a dissertation, so this seemed like as good a time as any to start a new habit. I ordered my journal online from Jenni Bick, a locally-owned stationer based in Washington, DC.

My new dissertation journal. I got the Leutturm 1917 Master Notebook (A4+) in red, basically the biggest journal in the boldest color for big, bold ideas. The pen is a Lamy fountain pen, as I’d read they require less pressure for writing than a ballpoint, which I figured would be good for long-term hand health. So far, so good.

Journaling aside, I’ve been doing more reading.

More reading? Didn’t you just read 200 books for exams? Yes, but those readings were primarily intended to get a broad understanding of the academic fields that engage my interests and work. With prospectus readings, your aims are a bit more focused. Rather than aim for a broad understanding of a field, you’re seeking out the authors whose methods or areas of research closely engage your own work, and decide how their work could inform yours. All scholarship is inspired by other scholarship, after all, and a big part of the dissertation is demonstrating that you’re familiar with current research and can dialogue with other authors. So I’ve been reading about museums, New Deal art, and current events, as they all engage my interests in art access, public education, and the role of the state in culture.

Just as I moved 2,000 miles away from Roswell to seek out new intellectual opportunities at William & Mary, my goal with the prospectus is to craft an outline for a project that goes well beyond the Roswell Museum to address other places, time periods, and subjects.

Two issues in particular have been preoccupying me since I started this process, based on feedback from both my exam committee and personal reflection. First, I want to take my dissertation beyond the Roswell Museum. RMAC has been a recurrent case study in a lot of my term papers and projects because I was already familiar with the materials, but I’ve never envisioned the dissertation being a New Mexico-centric project. At most, I see Roswell forming a chapter, but moving forward, I don’t see it being my primary focus.

The second idea is to link my interests in the Community Art Center Project, and more broadly museums, to the cultural crises of the present moment. As many scholars have observed, there are a lot of uncanny, often uncomfortable parallels between the current moment and the Great Depression in terms of economic difficulties and social unrest. Yet the way in which the current administration has approached culture is markedly different from the New Deal era, with museums and other cultural institutions struggling to remain financially solvent in the wake of the ongoing pandemic. At the same time, museums have also been rightly called out for their complicity in maintaining white supremacy, colonialism, and other infrastructures of inequality, with many people asking whether museums are equipped to encourage radical social change. Given my own experience working in museums, I’m familiar with how daily operations, donor relations, and institutional policies, can often detract museum workers from addressing social change, and the dissertation could be a good opportunity to discuss some of these systemic issues.

In short, my goal over the next few months is to take my various interests and coalesce them in a bigger project that can sustain my interests for the next few years. Whether it focuses solely on the Community Art Center Project and its descendants, or more broadly looks at museums, public education, state culture, or something else, whatever I write should be multifaceted, engaging, and beneficial to those who read it.

The journal is a place to write down ideas, questions, and anything else that comes to mind as I make my way toward the prospectus.

It’s a tall order, but then again, that’s why I got myself a big journal.

Just Go Vote

Note: if you want to skip ahead to the voter information, because that’s the most important part of today’s post, scroll down until you see bold text.

Today’s post was originally going to be about a lot of different things.

Initially, I was going to write a response piece to the 1776 commission and its call for patriotic interpretations of history that instill pride rather than hated for one’s country, to paraphrase Trump. I was going to talk about the importance of confronting histories of genocide, exploitation, and ecological degradation, among other things, not only as a starting point for healing, to summarize Amy Lonetree, but also because these atrocities are still happening.

Then Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away and Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett. So I thought I should write a piece that centered my own experiences with voluntary sterilization to demonstrate how having the freedom to make choices about my reproductive health has benefitted my life. I wanted to tell my story to both normalize exercising autonomy over one’s body, and to bring back some of the nuance that gets lost when choice, and by extension reproductive health, is reduced to a question of abortion.

Then the debate happened, and…I’ve got nothing. Well, nothing that hasn’t already been articulated in other essays and articles.

Then Trump got diagnosed with Covid, and in the wake of his publicity stunts, I thought about writing a piece expressing how angry I feel most of the time living in this pandemic. Angry that Brandon and I and countless others have been following protocols to keep everyone safe while others disregard those precautions, extending the overall duration of the pandemic for everybody. Angry for Brandon because he couldn’t go to Florida to meet his niece, who was born in May. Angry for all the museums, archives, and other cultural institutions that have suffered in the wake of the pandemic. Angry for essential workers, teachers, and others who risk their lives every day. Angry for living with an administration that has failed to address the virus effectively. Angry for the normalization of pandemic anxiety. For all of the people who have died. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. ICE. The list goes on, and on, and on.

And it was around this time I realized it’d be at least November before I got back to sharing my life and research as a Ph.D. candidate. You know, the reason why I set up this website in the first place.

So rather than tell these stories right now, because let’s be honest, if you’ve gotten this far without skipping you probably already agree with me at least in part, and if you don’t, one blog post isn’t going to change your mind, I’m sharing voting information:

For national information, including registration, click here.

If you’re a Virginia voter, click here. To skip to registration, click here.

If you’re a James City County voter, click here. To skip to registration, click here.

If you live in the City of Williamsburg, click here. To skip to registration, click here.

Important dates:

October 13: Last day to register to vote. That means you have one week from today, October 6, to register if you haven’t already.

October 23: Last day to request a ballot to be mailed to you

October 31: Last day to vote absentee

November 3: All polling places open 6 am – 7pm.

I voted and got my sticker; where’s yours?

Maybe I’ll tell those stories in the future, but not today. Go cast your ballot. Vote as if your life, and the lives of those you love, depend on it, because they very likely do.

This Year’s Assistantship: The Equality Lab

A new academic year means a new assistantship at William & Mary, and while conditions are very different from previous semesters, I’ve still got plenty to do for the College. Today then, I’d like to talk about my assistantship with the Equality Lab.

Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities | ASA

The Equality Lab, as the name implies, is an organization on campus focused on providing equitable opportunities for students of all backgrounds and interests. It encourages collaboration and interdisciplinary research through the digital humanities, and explores questions of representation, intersectionality, and the nature of equality as a concept. It’s open to both undergraduate and graduate researchers, and hosts various symposia, workshops, and other opportunities throughout the year.

I first got involved with the Equality Lab during my first year at William & Mary. Elizabeth Losh, the professor teaching my digital humanities seminar, encouraged me to start attending events and activities because she thought my interests in representation and labor as rendered through my archival research resonated with the overarching objectives of the Lab. Over the past couple of years, I’ve attended various workshops and talks, and have had the opportunity to meet such seminal digital scholars as Amy Earhart and Lauren Klein, among others. Since I was still in coursework, I didn’t get to attend everything, but I knew I’d want to get more involved once I was finished with classes and comps. When it came time to pick a new assistantship then, I put the Equality Lab as my first choice.

The Equality Lab typically has two graduate fellows per year. My cohort is Laura Beltran-Rubio, who also started W&M’s American Studies Program in 2018. She’s a fashion scholar researching colonial dress in 18th-century Latin America, specifically Colombia, and is interested in questions of labor, maker-based modes of academic research, representation, and ethical practices. She’s a highly engaged scholar participating in seminars, podcasts, the digital humanities, and other media, and you should definitely check out her work on her website.

Naturally, the pandemic has changed the way we do things, at least for the fall semester. As a graduate fellow, one of my duties pre-Covid would have been to hold office hours at the Equality Lab’s space in Morton Hall, a place where students can come to work or projects, study, or ask questions, but that’s unavailable for the foreseeable future. In-person workshops and seminars are also out of the question for the sake of safety and public health. Instead, we’re organizing virtual symposia and workshops for at least the fall semester, and possibly into the spring. So instead of working in Morton Hall, I’m at home, but there’s still plenty to do in terms of reaching out to potential speakers, organizing workshops, updating the website, and all-around thinking of ways to be available to students.

The pandemic has also informed the underlying themes and questions of the events we’re organizing this year. The flagship event is a series of symposia centered on the concept of home and its many connotations, from a sanctuary or shelter to a place of confinement or violence. We’ve got at least three events planned. The fall will focus on home as explored in the spatial humanities, while the spring will delve into questions of representation through disability studies, indigenous studies, and other critical frameworks. In addition to the symposia, we’re also planning different workshops throughout the year. We recently had Ravynn K. Stringfield give an excellent presentation on crafting an academic presence through Twitter, for instance, and Laura is planning on doing a similar session with Instagram in November. Given my experience with virtual conferences, I plan on putting together a workshop on conference videos in the spring.

Even though things are different this year, I’m excited to be working at the Equality Lab. I appreciate that the American Studies program endeavors to diversify the professional experiences of its students, and as much as I enjoyed TAing last year, I’m glad to be trying something new. Especially given how easy it is to isolate these days, I’m looking forward to getting the opportunity to meet and interact with other students and scholars, virtually or otherwise, and to continue working on expanding my network. Most of all, I’m happy to help foster an environment of safety, acceptance, and intellectual curiosity for students, which is more important than ever now.

Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures

COVID-19 has changed the way we do a lot of things, or at least think about how we do things, from working remotely to providing education. Academic conferences are no exception. While some organizations like the American Studies Association or the Space Between Society have opted to postpone their gatherings until next year, others have been experimenting with virtual conferencing. I recently presented at one of these virtual forums, Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures, which I’d like to talk about today.

Selections from the Index of American Design exhibited at the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center alongside local antiques, January 1938. Image courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

As the name suggests, virtual conferencing means that you convene online instead of in-person. Conferences can happen in real-time, with viewers logging in at a scheduled time to view specific videos or presentations, or in the case of Museum Exhibition Design, asynchronously. This means that presenters upload videos of their presentations ahead of time, and then attendees can watch the videos at their convenience. In lieu of live Q&A’s, participants type their questions in a comments forum, and presenters respond when they get the chance. I got to experience an asynchronous conference earlier this summer when I participated in DH2020, an international digital humanities conference. I wasn’t a presenter, but watching the different presentations and commenting in the forum helped me get acquainted with the virtual conferencing format. The advantage of asynchronous presenting is that participants can attend the conference from anywhere in the world regardless of time zone, so long as they have an internet connection (as other scholars have pointed out, Internet connectivity is yet another signifier of systemic inequality and access, especially when it comes to education).

Hosted by the University of Brighton’s Centre for Design History, Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures aimed to create a nearly carbon-neutral conference experience. Scheduled from September 1-11, the conference hosted 500 participants from around the world, and dozens of presenters ranging from Ph.D. students and professors, to curators and exhibition designers. As you can imagine, enabling a virtual experience hosting so many different presentations and participants is a heady logistical undertaking. Its three primary organizers, Dr. Claire Wintle, Hajra Williams, and Kate Guy all did a fantastic job crafting a website that was easily navigable, stylish, and accommodating to various computer interfaces.

Beyond the conference itself, what really made this experience special is its ongoing life as a repository for exhibition design scholarship. Prior to the launch of the conference, attendees were invited to submit links to publications, projects, and other resources relating to their research, and these sources were made accessible to all conference attendees. What’s more, while the conference itself is over, these resources, along with videos that have had their image copyrights cleared, will remain online, rendering the scholarship of all the different participants available for future research. As far as virtual conferences go, Museum Exhibition Design offers a strong case study on how to run such an undertaking effectively, as well as facilitate ongoing access to different scholarly resources.

As with my previous conference experiences at the University of Michigan and the Space Between Society, I discussed the Community Art Center Project (CACP) in my presentation, but this time I focused on the influence of labor networks in exhibition design. More specifically, I explored how freight transport, quick installation times, varying architectural spaces, and staff experience all likely contributed to the standardized aesthetic of CACP shows. Additionally, I suggested that the standardization mandated by the format of the CACP itself likely contributed to an overall preference for small-to-medium-sized, two-dimensional works that could be transported easily and installed in a variety of spaces. I also speculated how this could have informed the development of the modern art canon itself, or at least public perceptions of what art should look like. For an individual case study, I focused on questions of labor within the Roswell Museum by considering the work experiences of one of its gallery attendants, Rainey Woolsey, and the issues she encountered regarding the recognition of her work. Based on the reception I got in the comments section, viewers found this particular take on the CACP engaging. Given my own interest in recognizing the labor of all museum workers, this could be a very fruitful direction for me moving forward.

As for the video itself, I ultimately went with the simplest option in that I made a PowerPoint and recorded it with a voiceover, though I originally planned to film a full video of myself narrating the text and splicing in images. Aside from personalizing the video, I wanted to show myself to make my identity as a white woman and all the privilege that entails transparent to viewers (this is also why I’ve added a picture of myself to my website’s homepage). I soon realized, however, that the video editing software required was beyond the capabilities of my laptop. Editing a full video also demands a significant amount of time to do it well, and since I was about to take my qualifying exams, I decided to opt for the simpler option. Despite scaling back my initial ambitions, I did manage to record a brief introduction and conclusion of myself, so while the majority of the video was a PowerPoint with narration, the beginning and the end featured me talking to the camera. Additionally, at the request of the conference organizers, I added closed captions by putting the video on YouTube, uploading a copy of my transcript, and synchronizing them.

The introduction I recorded for my video, which I filmed with my smartphone mounted to a tripod. Now you know what my voice sounds like.

While the video did its job in conveying information about the CACP to viewers, virtual conferencing has also been a learning experience, and watching the other presentations helped me identify several things I can do better in the future. While I included citations in the transcript of my talk, for instance, from now on I’m going to include bibliography slides at the end of my presentations so that viewers can consult any sources that interested them. I’m also going to add separate slides for direct quotations and their sources, again so that viewers can note exactly which sources I’m using in case they want to look them up. A lot of the videos I watched also included a more dynamic use of images, video, and text, which have inspired me to experiment with my own use of media. In short, this conference reiterated to me that presentations are an important scholarly resource, and should be made as accessible as possible to researchers.

The conference also emphasized the importance of investing in technology if I want to start making videos seriously. I learned through this experience that if I want to do videos well, I should invest in equipment like reflecting glasses for teleprompters. I’d also need to switch from working on a laptop to a desktop capable of handling video editing software. Luckily for me, my partner Brandon has a desktop for his gaming and we recently created an account on it for me, so if I decide to pursue that route, I at least have the computer at hand.

So what’s my overall take on in-person vs. virtual conferences? Like most things, there are advantages and disadvantages to each. In-person conferences definitely have a certain energy to them, and you’re more likely to be focused on the event itself because everything is concentrated in a finite period. There’s also the spontaneity of being able to approach speakers during breaks or after their talks, which you don’t experience in the same way with virtual forums. As someone who enjoys traveling, I also like being able to visit new places when I go to conferences.

All that said, there are a lot of advantages to virtual conferences. Since they’re often asynchronous, I can take my time thinking of questions to presentations, and I’ve noticed that I participate in Q&A’s a lot more as a result. As fun as conferences can be, they’re also pretty draining because of all the presenting, listening, and networking going on, so I do like being able to space out presentations over a longer time. And while the spontaneous coffee chat may not be possible, I still had several meaningful discussions in the forums, and even had an outside meeting on Zoom with a speaker whose work I especially enjoyed. Most significantly perhaps, virtual conferences offer another means of accessing scholarship, especially for graduate students. Not everyone has the budget or the generous time blocks to travel to conferences (or in the case of travelers from the United States like myself, we’re not really wanted anywhere right now), so having these virtual options can enable other scholars to participate who might not have been able to attend otherwise, and that’s important.

Overall, I had a great experience at the Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures Conference, and it should serve as a model for other experiences like it. After all, virtual conferences are likely to be the norm for the immediate future, and perhaps beyond, so we should embrace their potential as scholarly resources.

Comprehensive Exams: Reflecting on my Experience

On September 9, I officially passed my comprehensive exams. In terms of degree requirements, this means I am ABD: All but Dissertation. Mind you, I still have a ways to go before completing the degree because I still have to research and write the dissertation, but finishing the exams is a major milestone as it’s one of the last things you do before being cut loose to research and write. Today then, I’d like to reflect on the exams and the process I took to prepare for them.

For graduate students: I’ve included my lists as downloadable PDFs at the end of this post, so if you’re putting together your own reading lists and seeking inspiration, please feel free to download and consult them.

How I felt after finishing my written exams.

In the American Studies Program at William & Mary, the exam consists of both a written and oral portion. The written section is taken at home over four days, one day for each list. On the morning of each day, you receive a set of questions for a specific reading list. You then select two questions to answer from that list and spend the next six hours writing two essays. This means you write a total of eight different essays over four days, with the length depending on your typing speed and loquacity (I wrote about 88 pages total). Most of the questions lend themselves to a standard essay format, but there are usually a few creative options as well, such as drafting a proposal for an exhibition or undergraduate course. Regardless of the format, you’ll answer the question by citing appropriate readings from your respective lists.

The oral section is considerably shorter. Once you hand in the exams, your committee reads the essays. About a week later, you’ll come together for an hour or so to discuss the essays in more detail. I’ve heard of some programs having pretty intense orals, but my experience at W&M was more laid-back. It’s less an intellectual grilling than an opportunity to expand on your arguments or discuss points that you wanted to address but didn’t have time to delve into due to time constraints. Historically this part is done in person, but given the circumstances of COVID-19, we did it over Zoom.

I’ve heard nightmare stories about exams, but mine went about as smoothly as one can hope. I had little difficulty answering the actual questions or thinking of appropriate readings to reference, and I was able to articulate myself during the oral part. My committee was also positive and supportive of my work and ideas, which made the process much easier. The hardest part was maintaining the physical and mental stamina to complete the essays, as sitting and typing for hours on end is pretty draining. For each day of writing, I found that setting aside one of my allotted hours to outline each of my two responses really helped. Writing the introductions and conclusions for each essay first also made things easier, as it meant that regardless of how much I wrote, I had an articulate beginning and end to each piece.

What else enabled me to pull this off?

A significant part of my success stems from privilege, which made the whole process easier for me to complete. As a white, able-bodied, childfree, cisgender woman with a decent economic standing, I could focus on reading without worrying (relatively speaking, given the state of everything) about my personal safety, my bills, the well-being of any children, and so forth. Since Brandon does most of the cooking and grocery shopping, moreover, I didn’t have to spend all of my downtime on domestic labor, which meant that I could recharge from my reading through exercise, pursuing different hobbies, or resting (again, relatively speaking, all things considered). All of this meant that I entered the exams feeling adequately rested and prepared.

Previous experience also influenced my results. I’ve had to discuss my academic work before at committees, whether for my undergraduate thesis (not necessary to graduate but I was an overachiever) or the qualifying paper for my M.A., so the idea of talking about my work with faculty doesn’t intimidate me as much as it could. My work experience at museums has also demonstrated that I am capable of doing a lot of different things, whether supervising the day-to-day logistics of a curatorial department or conceptualizing and completing a large exhibition, so I felt confident that I could handle this too. In other words, the more you do, the more comfortable you feel with doing other things.

The most significant contributing factor to my ability to complete the exams though, was the preparation itself. I spent eight months getting ready, with the last month alone focused on reviewing, so I had a good amount of time. I’ve always been pretty good about scheduling my work time and staying on task, so setting up a regular reading schedule and sticking to it was also doable. To keep myself from burning out, I worked only during the week, taking the weekends off to relax and spend time with Brandon. My previous coursework had also helped my refine my note-taking skills. For each book or article, my notes included subsections discussing argument, methods, evidence, and relations to other readings, an approach I picked up in my Mobilities seminar last year. In addition to these notes, I wrote flashcards that I later used for daily reviewing. Readers of this blog will also remember that I wrote posts about each of my reading lists and the sublists within them, which let me reflect on the readings both individually and as a group.

The month I spent reviewing was especially helpful. I reread the notes I took on each text, which enabled me to get reacquainted with general arguments as well as remember key details or case studies. I also reviewed my flashcards regularly, which meant that for the last month, I reviewed each text at least once a day, five days a week. I also created mindmaps identifying major theoretical or topical frameworks connecting readings not only within individual lists, but across the four lists as well, encouraging me to think through a more interdisciplinary lens. This meant that when I was writing my essays, I could not only connect them to their specific reading list, but could also discuss texts from other lists, or even previous courses, which demonstrated that I was not thinking about these readings in isolation.

Perhaps most significantly, I knew what to expect from the various members on my committee. Throughout the reading process, I met with each faculty member at least three times, with each meeting discussing a different group of readings. During these meetings, we would brainstorm potential questions in addition to discussing the texts, which gave me a sense of the angles each faculty member would likely take. Some sent me practice questions to get me thinking about how to group readings, and for my infrastructure exam, I actually wrote my own questions, a process that really encouraged me to think about the major themes and ideas of that list. In short, by the time I took the exam, I was confident that I could answer the questions because I knew what to expect and had plenty of time to get comfortable with the readings.

So what did I get from this process, aside from reading about a lot of cool different subjects? Basically the exams are there to help you get acquainted with the major questions and debates of your fields of interest. You won’t come out knowing everything, of course, but you’ll have a better sense of the context for your academic work. Since all research builds off of other scholarship, it’s important to have this contextualization. Beyond the broad strokes of the field, you’ll also a better sense of how different scholars put their arguments together, what evidence they use and how they use it, and so forth. You’ll also start noticing which scholars you tend to admire or not, and which ones you’d like to reference or emulate moving forward. Basically, the exam preparation helps you to better understand your place in the field, and what kind of intervention you’d like to make. Of course, this process is ongoing, but it’s an important beginning.

At least, that’s what I’ve gotten from it. I can’t speak for everyone who has undergone this process, but for me, it was worthwhile. After spending years working on exhibitions, focusing on day-to-day museum tasks, or more recently completing required coursework, it was a refreshing change to just read and think about scholarship that speaks to me and my specific research interests. I was definitely ready to be finished once I took the exams, but overall I’m glad I did it. Now on to the next phase, writing the dissertation prospectus!

Reading list downloads for anyone interested:

New Digital Project: Facemask Drawings

I’ve been in a holding pattern since finishing my written exams on August 27 because I still need to complete the oral component, which is happening this Wednesday. In the meantime, I’ve been catching up on nonacademic projects that I’d sidelined while reading for comps. My main website, for instance, now features a brand-new page about my curatorial and academic writing in the main menu. On this page, I’ve not only included links to open-access materials published online, but also provided downloadable PDFs for all my exhibit brochures and other print-only materials.

Another important project that I’ve recently made available is more personal. This is the online exhibit Facemasks: Drawings of COVID-19 Face Coverings, the latest addition to my Digital Projects page, and it’s what I’d like to talk about today.

This exhibit is a collection of drawings I’ve made depicting various COVID-19 facemasks. I initially started making these drawings because sketching has always been an important way for me to process my thoughts and emotions. I initially had little desire to draw because I felt overwhelmed, but I finally took an interest in sketching again when I began taking a closer look at the facemasks in our house. Brandon had brought home several cloth facemasks made by employees working in the textiles department at Colonial Williamsburg, and over time, I became interested in their visual qualities. One day, I draped one of the masks over some pushpins I’d applied to the wall in my study, and started sketching. I liked this display method because it mimicked the effect of them being worn while also suggesting the appearance of pinned butterflies and other natural history displays. In keeping with those presentations, I decided to draw the masks in a naturalistic way, with an emphasis on their physical presence as conveyed through modeling and cast shadows.

I drew the masks using pen and ink with ink wash and paint, arguably my favorite way to sketch. In drawing the masks, I thought about them primarily as sites of labor and expression. I wondered about the choices made in fabric selection, the time needed to complete them, the labor that I had been spared by having these masks available for use, and whether I would ever find out who made them. I also thought about facemasks within contemporary American visual culture, and their associations with public health, individual freedom, distrust of authority, and personal expression. Through these drawings, in other words, I began to process my feelings about the pandemic.

The first mask I drew once I got the idea to start sketching them. This is Brandon’s alternate facemask. He doesn’t use this one as much because the material is thick and itchy, but I liked the marbling effect on the fabric.

Around the time I started drawing facemasks, I came up with the idea of an online exhibit. As a curator, I’ve been following how museums have reconfigured their collections through online exhibits, and while I’m currently not working in a museum environment, I wanted to use my previous experiences as a museum professional to explore new ways of sharing material. Since I knew there would be an online component to the project, I also decided to expand my collection by inviting my contacts on social media to send photos of their masks. I also encouraged participants to send any text they wanted to include about their mask in the form that worked best for them, whether as a caption, poem, short story, or something else. The captions that you see come directly from the users who submitted these images, and is used with their permission. 

This mask was sent to me over social media by Karen Strange, Brandon’s aunt. Since I was working from a photograph, the ties took on a more dynamic quality in jeeping with the original image.

Admittedly this took longer than anticipated. Soon after I conceptualized the project I developed tendonitis in my dominant hand and had to halt all creative activity for several weeks. As much as I wanted to get on with the exhibit, I knew working through the injury would only make it worse, so I reluctantly put the project on hold until my hand healed (for blog posts and comps notes, I actually switched to voice typing). I’ve since been able to resume my usual activities, albeit with greater attention to rest and stretching.

Once I finished my drawings, I turned them into high-quality JPGs using a fantastic portable scanner that Brandon had gotten me for Christmas a couple years ago (I also used it to create the PDFs on my writing page). I created the actual exhibit on Omeka because it’s a popular platform that I’ve been wanting to learn how to use. During a few afternoons, I figured out how to add items, create collections, and from those repositories, form exhibits. Like a lot of digital platforms I’ve used, I learned through trial and error, but between my own tinkering and the online tutorials available, I figured it out enough to create this project.

Facemasks in its current form is an intimate project with eight different masks and stories on view. I had initially hoped for more submissions, but I’ve also come to appreciate its small scale, given the importance of intimacy in digital humanities projects. As digital scholars such as Roopika Risam and Jacqueline Wernimont argue, small projects provide a crucial counterpoint to large-scale undertakings because they remind us that quantity alone is not the sole measure of quality or significance. Given the emphasis on big numbers with pandemic research, it’s important to counterbalance those statistics with more intimate data that highlight the humanity of the pandemic.

This mask, with its rainbow stripes, reminds me of a Morris Louis painting.

Not that the project has to end here. On the contrary, new submissions are always welcome. If you would like to participate, all you need to do is take a picture of your mask and email it to scwoodbury@gmail.com, along with any text you’d like to see featured alongside your mask. Submit your thoughts as a caption, a short story, a poem, a song, or any other form that suits you. You may also include any information you feel comfortable sharing about yourself, or remain anonymous. I’ll draw the photo you send me and add it to the site, along with any other information you choose to include.

I initially made this project to work through my own feelings, but as a space for sharing, I hope that it will also benefit other people.

Navigating the Media

During my freshman year in high school, I took a class on contemporary young adult literature. Keep in mind, I went to a charter school that offered a fairly eclectic array of classes, including Latin, marine biology, and the course that would change my life, art history, so this course wasn’t especially usual to me. In retrospect though, it was remarkable for three reasons:

My high school yearbook photo from freshman year ca. 2000-2001; I had very long hair.
  1. This was the first and one of the only times I’ve encountered modern and contemporary YA literature being taken seriously in any sort of academic environment. I’ve only recently come to appreciate how unusual this is.
  2. The syllabus had no master reading list. Instead, each student proposed a topic for a research project and chose books in accordance with that theme. In my case, that meant nearly all of the books I read were written by women and focused on the experiences and perspectives of women and girls, whether they were aspiring writers, burgeoning detectives, or even navigating the challenges of OCD. Again, it would take me years to realize how (sadly) unusual that was.
  3. Critical thinking was a key point of the course, with a focus on analysis rather than the simple regurgitation of narrative or plot. In reading these books, we weren’t just expected to summarize their events, but to interrogate the kinds of values they were espousing or not, and why.

I feel this last point is especially pertinent. As an adult living in the times that we do now, I wish critical thinking was taught with the same eagerness as that course had espoused, and not just in public schools. Given the preponderance of misinformation, disinformation, and overall distrust of anything in terms of content and authority, learning to recognize not only the point of view of various articles or stories, but how they seek to grab and maintain our attention through relaying facts, stoking our emotions, or both, is crucial to navigating the so-called Information Age. It’s bad enough with all the pandemic misinformation circulating around social media, but with an election coming up in a couple of months, the outbursts of accusations, falsehoods, and rumors will only get worse.

Today then, in honor of my old high school class, I’d like to use today’s post as a primer on critical thinking, and more specifically on recognizing misinformation. In terms of point of view, I’m writing as a white American living in the United States, and I don’t claim to be an expert on teaching the subject. Instead, I’ll share some of the tips I use to navigate the ever wild-and-woolly world of media.

When it comes to the media, emotion rules. As Nato Thomson argues in Culture as Weapon, everyone from politicians to entrepreneurs appeals to the public through emotion because arguments based on affect rather than reason are more likely to invoke a stronger, more passionate, and lasting reaction. If you find that a social media post or article is trying to stoke your anger, recognize that it’s been designed to do that, and take a step back.

Recognize that you might feel angry at articles that challenge your worldview, but don’t let that anger keep you from accepting factual evidence. Since politics often get conflated with feelings, it can be extremely difficult to change opinions based on facts alone, especially if they conflict with our worldviews or lifestyles. It’s why we shut down during discussions of climate change, deny the pandemic’s existence rather than change our behaviors, or use platitudes like “but not all (insert term here).” As I learned in the book Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Difference, people with strong political inclinations on either side of the spectrum are more likely to manipulate facts to fit their established worldview than to change their perspective to reflect new data. Change is hard, it really is, but don’t let that stop you from accepting new facts or realities.

Know your source. Where did your article come from? The New York Times? Fox News? The Guardian? The Federalist? No source is entirely neutral and every article has a point of view, but some sources are more inclined toward one end of the liberal/conservative spectrum than the other, which will definitely influence its interpretation of events. Know where your article is coming from in terms of platform, and better yet, read from a few different sources rather than limit yourself to one.

Don’t stop at the headline: read the entire story. Media outlets know that we have short attention spans, and use inflammatory headlines to get our attention. If you don’t read the rest of the article though, chances are you’ll be missing a lot of vital contexts. So say you saw an article called “Pope Eats Babies.” Maybe it’s actually about the Pope’s fondness for baby carrots (I don’t know if he actually likes them, so don’t quote me), but if you never got past the headline, you might assume he was an infanticidal cannibal. Then you share that article on social media, where your viewers probably won’t read it either. Pretty soon you have a mass of people angry at the Pope for liking vegetables, except they don’t know that because their reading stopped at the headline.

Same goes for images. Did you notice that I posted a high school picture at the beginning of this post, only to end up talking about something completely different? I did that on purpose. I know from tracking the blog stats for this site that pictures of me nearly always result in more views of my posts. Like those pesky catchy headlines, articles, posts, and other media use pictures to get your attention, if not necessarily keep it. As stated in the previous point, a lot of inflammatory media depends on short attention spans and emotional reactions to obliterate nuanced analysis in favor of broad assessments. Defy expectations and look at the images in the entire article, not just the first one.

Pictures also have a point of view. Photography is often touted as capturing things as they really are, but since its inception photographers have used the medium to tell specific stories. This can be as simple as cropping a scene, but in the age of advanced photoshop and film editing, it’s become easier than ever to create new, seemingly objective realities via digital editing. Once again, this is why it’s important to not only read the entire piece but to check its sources, including image credits.

Check the sources. I can’t stress this one enough. Whether what you’re reading concerns politics, the pandemic, or something else, check the sources. If there are no data or citations to support the argument, chances are it’s fabricated. This is especially prevalent when it comes to memes, quick stats, and other bite-sized chunks of media meant to be seen and processed quickly. I’ve seen a lot of people post statistics about gun control or immigration online, for instance, only to find through a quick search that their claims have no factual basis whatsoever. The next time you see one a meme like the one I’ve posted below, go to Snopes or another verifying source and see whether it has any factual basis. It doesn’t matter if it affirms your personal beliefs or attitudes. If there are no data to back its claims, you’re only doing harm spreading these things around.

An example of the “stat-sharing meme” I sometimes see on social media. The meme includes no citations whatsoever, and a quick search on Snopes reveals that the claims made here are false.

Check your sources, part two. You should also pay attention to the sources in longer articles . Who are the authors quoting in the article? Are there any references to any recent scholarly works? If yes, who are they? Are they mostly white men, or are they also including women, Black perspectives, and other viewpoints? If there’s a reference to a specific book or article, can you find it easily? If it’s a Wikipedia article, are there citations and a bibliography at the end sharing sources? If so, what kinds of sources are they showing? If it’s a pandemic piece, are they quoting certified doctors or medical researchers and including the evidence and observations of research to back their claims?

Verify, verify, verify. Don’t just rely on one news article for a story. Read and compare articles, and note their similarities and differences. Are they consistent in the basic facts? What are their perspectives on the events? In the age of niche audiences and customization, it’s especially easy to get caught in an echo chamber when it comes to political information, so going outside of your usual sources can be one way to broaden the spectrum.

About social media sharing. You may have read that entire article and verified its sources, but a lot of your followers will not. If you’re worried about spreading misinformation, either provide a brief summary or encourage them to read the whole thing. It’s not a surefire prevention technique, but it’s better than simply posting with no explanation or context if you’re concerned about misinterpretation.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it’s a start. Does this sound like a lot of work? It is, but it’s important and we need to make the time for it. As we head into what is most likely going to be another ugly election cycle, it’s crucial that we remain vigilant about the information we consume, particularly when it comes to voting, representation, and accessibility. Let’s all do our part to prevent misinformation, whether it’s related to the pandemic, politics, race relations, something else, or all of the above.

Looking for more resources? Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Allsides shares news from left, center, and right perspectives, allowing you to see how different points of view shape the interpretation of events: https://www.allsides.com/unbiased-balanced-news

The University of Michigan put together this chart mapping out popular news media outlets across the political spectrum: https://guides.lib.umich.edu/c.php?g=637508&p=4462444

For a great comic discussing the backfire effect, check out this comic from The Oatmeal: https://www.theoatmeal.com/comics/believe

To check out a school curricula approach to teaching disinformation, here’s an article from The Guardian about what Finland has been doing: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/28/fact-from-fiction-finlands-new-lessons-in-combating-fake-news

PBS also has programs about fake news and promoting media literacy: https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/collection/fake-news/

For a discussion about the distinction between misinformation and disinformation, click here: https://lifehacker.com/misinformation-and-disinformation-are-not-the-same-thin-1839290006

For information on the pandemic, here’s a compilation from the CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/communication/print-resources.html?Sort=Date%3A%3Adesc

For quick fact-checking, there’s Snopes: https://www.snopes.com/

Books:

Predisposed: https://www.routledge.com/Predisposed-Liberals-Conservatives-and-the-Biology-of-Political-Differences/Hibbing-Smith-Alford/p/book/9780415535878

Culture as Weapon: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/culture-as-weapon-nato-thompson/1124484327

Nato Thomson also discusses his book in thi interview with The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/01/culture-as-weapon-nato-thompson/514712/

Thinking (and Reading) About Cultural Politics

When I was an intern at the Dallas Museum of Art, the museum attempted to buy at auction A Grand View of the Seashore, a large seascape painted around 1774 by the French artist Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789). This wasn’t any ordinary art purchase. A Grand View of the Seashore is actually the companion piece to another Vernet painting, Landscape with Approaching Storm, which is part of the DMA collection. The paintings meditate on the interactions between humanity and nature. A Grand View of the Seashore offers a peaceful scene conducive to human commerce and other activities, with its warm palette of peach, yellow, and pale blue underscoring its sense of calm. Landscape with Approaching Storm, by contrast, explores the more tempestuous side of nature, with craggy mountains, a darker palette of blues and grays, and diagonal rainclouds bringing a foreboding, energetic quality to the scene and sending its tiny humans running for shelter. Commissioned by Lord Lansdowne, the paintings had been separated since 1806 after being sold to separate private collections. The upcoming auction represented a rare opportunity to reunite the paintings for the first time in over two hundred years.

I was there when the bidding for A Grand View of the Seashore took place. I remember crowding into my supervisor’s office with my fellow interns in the European and American art departments to watch the auction online. We were excited because we thought the museum had a good chance of getting the painting, which would be a boon to scholars and art enthusiasts alike. To have these paintings reunited in a public collection; how art historically significant!

The DMA’s bidding limit was two million dollars. Think about that for a minute. Two million dollars for one painting. For comparison, that was double the entire annual budget of the Roswell Museum and Art Center when I was working there. Despite our optimism, the DMA never stood a chance. Within a minute of the opening bid, private collectors annihilated our prospects, and the painting ended up going for about 8 million dollars. While the painting was loaned for a temporary exhibition, that day was one of the most disheartening of my museum career up to that point, and it underscored the significance of money to the art world for me. While museums and other institutions often downplay the monetary value of their collections to the public, the truth is, money is key to their success as cultural institutions. Whoever controls the purse strings arguably controls the culture, or at least the ones considered mainstream or normative.

I’ve been thinking about that day a lot as I’ve been working through the final section of my art history reading list, which focuses on cultural politics. Several of these readings focus outright on the significance of money to the art world, and the influence that private and government donors alike exert over culture when they’re the ones funding it. Mark Rectanus’s Culture Incorporated looks at corporate sponsorship as a significant means of cultural production in globalization. He examines how corporate sponsorship influences culture through a variety of media, including museum exhibitions, advertising campaigns with artists, supporting cultural events, globalizing museums, or advocating for technology. In Artwash, artist and activist Mel Evans considers the connection between big oil and the art world as articulated through the various branches of the Tate Museum in the UK. In the wake of declining government support, big oil has stepped in to provide funding to museums and other institutions, an act that is ultimately self-serving on the part of the businesses doing philanthropy. Evans argues that BP uses art and museums as a way of legitimizing its business practices by distracting the public from their operations to focus on their art sponsorship, a process she calls artwashing. As a result, art institutions not only implicitly express their support for an ecologically and socially destructive business that reinscribes colonial inequality while destroying ecosystems, but also constrain their ability to speak out against social injustices because they allow such industries to influence their programming through the money they give.

While many of the texts I’ve looked at focus on private sponsorship, others consider government funding. In Federalizing the Muse, Donna M. Binkiewicz looks at the history of the National Endowment for the Arts and its antecedents. Her overarching argument is that the arts benefited from federal involvement, and that while much-maligned today, the NEA actually accomplished quite a bit given the constraints it experienced. She also complicates our understanding of both the NEA and the politicians who supported it. For example, she posits that the NEA was a more moderate institution than conventionally portrayed by neoconservatives. She notes that it often supported projects aligned with Abstract Expressionism, an art form that by the 1960s was no longer avant-garde in the way that say Pop Art, Feminist art, Black art, and other postmodern forms were. Instead, the NEA took an uplifting approach that aimed to educate viewers in the forms of high art rather than popular culture, while simultaneously espousing such supposedly American ideals as individual liberty and freedom, qualities that were believed to be best encapsulated by the individuality and seeming apolitical nature of Abstract Expressionism.

I’ve also been reading about the so-called culture wars, or the debates over arts funding that took place in the 1980s and 1990s in response to backlash over exhibitions of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography or Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. Art Matters offers an anthology of essays from artists, activists, as well as scholars. Each of the chapters explores the culture wars from a different vantage point, including the AIDS crisis, race, or the privatization of culture. While there is no singular argument underpinning this text other than the culture wars changed art funding in America, arguably for the worse, two themes recur throughout the text. First, the authors argue that the people defending artists during the culture wars oversimplified matters by focusing primarily on the First Amendment. In other words, by stating that artists were entitled to say whatever they wanted because of the First Amendment, a counter-argument stating that the arts should not be funded if they do not express the majority opinion could be mounted. In other words, you are free to say what you want, but not on my dollar. Instead, defenders should have explained the importance of the art, demonstrated to audiences how it conveyed the message it did, and how they address broader social issues such as systemic inequality. Second, the authors argued that the culture wars reflected an ongoing conflict between white supremacy and underrepresented voices. By focusing on the culture wars as a question of taxation, conservatives diverted attention away from the oppression that was taking place with regard to LBGTQ voices, and other perspectives. As a result, decreased funding made these underrepresented voices even less likely to be heard. These authors conclude that a democratic form of arts funding in the United States would be a model that enabled artists to create the work they need or want to do, regardless of content or potential offense to the government, conservatives, and other groups.

Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America, written about twenty years after Art Matters, takes a different perspective reflecting the passage of time. He offers an intellectual history underpinning the debates regarding religion, education, feminism, race, and other prominent subjects within the culture wars. He takes special care to explore the intellectual underpinnings of both sides of the debate, from the arguments of the New Left and the neoconservatives of the 1950s and 1960s, to the new social history,  to the growing presence of fundamentalist Christians on the political right. Through these different explorations, Hartman argues that the culture wars represented an ongoing debate between two different versions of America. The conservative version, or the normative one, espoused white, middle-class values regarding race, class, gender, and religion, while the liberal view supported pluralism. He concludes that while liberals and conservatives alike have largely recognized the new pluralistic vision of America that developed out of the 1960s, the pluralism we experience today was by no means guaranteed during the culture wars period. Published in 2015, Hartman originally concluded that the culture wars were finished, but he has since published a second edition in the wake of the 2016 election.

While the culture wars arguably represent one of the most dramatic national manifestations of the ongoing debates over art in America, cultural politics can also influence on the regional or local level. When I was in Roswell, local cultural politics definitely influenced the way I curated shows. As a municipal museum, we could and did exhibit controversial content, but we had to be mindful of where we placed exhibitions or individual pieces. Given Roswell’s overall conservative political culture, I usually had to make sure that the most visible galleries in the museum, particularly those that were located near classrooms, had so-called family-friendly content from a cisnormative perspective. Any works with violence, nudity, or critiques of religion and other institutions were exhibited in less prominent spaces, and with plenty of signage so that visitors could choose to avoid those galleries.

The most subtle instance of cultural politics within the museum happened when I curated Power: New Works by David Emitt Adams. Based in Phoenix, Adams is a photographer who uses historical methods like wet collodion printing and other techniques to take images of landscapes. His work channels the great landscape photographers of the 19th century, but whereas those pieces endeavored to present a seemingly pristine version of nature, Adams exposes that myth by examining the interconnectivity between culture and environment. One way he does this is by printing his images on cans, metal, and other detritus he finds in the landscapes he photographs, for example.

The exhibition I worked on, Power, featured a new body of work Adams had made focusing on oil refineries. Traveling around the American South and Southwest, Adams had photographed various refineries and printed them on used oil drum lids, with the streaks and other imperfections of the wet collodion process suggesting the liquid nature of oil itself. When I saw these images, I personally interpreted them as a commentary on the obsolescence of oil as an energy source. By using an antiquated printing method, in other words, Adams’ photographs seemed to meditate on our reliance on a fuel source that is itself finite and out of date.

Yet even as I read these photographs as a critique of the oil industry, I didn’t want to alienate local visitors by making this the official interpretation. After all, southeastern New Mexico’s economy has relied on the petroleum industry for decades, and a lot of Roswell’s prominent leaders and influencers are involved in oil in one form or another. The Roswell Museum also owes much of its existence to oil, with nearly all of its most prominent donors and philanthropists making their money through petroleum. So while I saw a critique when I viewed these photographs, I knew many of our local visitors would interpret these works through a more nostalgic or celebratory lens. When I wrote the exhibition text then, I focused primarily on the wet collodion process and the works’ dialogue with the history of photography, which Adams himself focused on when discussing his artistic practice. In essence, I deliberately left the actual interpretation of the works up to the viewers. An activist like Mel Evans would likely interpret my decision as enabling artwashing, but given Roswell’s cultural politics, encouraging viewers to produce their own interpretations provided the most leeway with regard to showing these pieces.

An example of one of Adams’ photographs. This depicts a refinery in Artesia, a town about 40 minutes south of Roswell.

Cultural politics will also play a substantial role in my dissertation research. Throughout its run, the Community Art Center Project and other endeavors from the FAP faced criticism for using federal money to support the arts, a seemingly frivolous expenditure compared to roads or infrastructure (the Leftist sympathies of many of these artists didn’t help). Local politics also shaped the programming of individual institutions. As I’ve noted in previous posts, the Roswell Museum and Art Center was a site for debate between the FAP and the local A&H Society, as they both had very different visions for the institution. Whereas the FAP wanted the museum to be an art appreciation space, with a focus on producing and consuming contemporary art from around the country, the A&H Society wanted the museum to be more site-specific by concentrating on the history and culture of Roswell itself. Undoubtedly other art centers experienced their own cultural politics, and getting to know these better will only enrich my understanding of this program.

Well, that’s a wrap on my posts about reading lists. I have to say, working through these different texts has been an enriching experience. I’ve learned a lot about a variety of subjects, and more importantly, have gotten a better sense of the major scholarly arguments within my fields of interest. While I’m looking forward to being finished with exams and getting started on the dissertation in earnest, the comps preparation process has been enjoyable in its own way. And hopefully, all of you readers have also gotten something out of following me on this journey.

Thinking (and Reading) About Museums

Last week we explored the art of the New Deal era, from Holger Cahill’s exhibition writings to more recent works exploring the political dimensions of 1930s art. Today, we’ll be considering a topic that has played a seminal role in my professional and personal life: museums.

Celebrating the completion of my very first exhibition, the culmination of my internship at the Dallas Museum of Art back in 2010-2011.

Most broadly, the texts I’ve been working through are asking two interrelated questions: what functions do museums currently serve as cultural institutions, and just as importantly, what kind of work should they be doing? With the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others, museums have been rightly called out for their complicity in maintaining white supremacy. As museum professionals reevaluate their missions and ongoing roles in society, it’s important to examine the values these institutions espouse through their exhibitions, programming, and outreach. In other words, what kinds of stories do museums choose to tell through the objects they display or the educational programming they put together?

While the phrase “museums are not neutral” may seem to be the latest hashtag on the cultural scene, scholars have long recognized the politicized nature of museums. As Steven Dubin and Timothy W. Luke both observe in their respective books, Museum Politics and Displays of Power, museums are inherently politicized institutions because of the authority we associate with them. Since museums are traditionally portrayed as preservers of knowledge and culture, they’re ascribed with an aura of trustworthiness that makes them ideal places for reifying social values or beliefs. To put it another way, museums sacralize the objects and ideas within them, providing a sense of legitimacy to whatever or whomever is brought within them. In the words of Indiana Jones, an object is in a museum because it belongs there, and in the eyes of society, museums are supposed to reify so-called normative values. When they depart from that objective to question longstanding beliefs, as the 1995 exhibition The West as America at the Smithsonian did when it critiqued a romanticized version of American Western history, they become controversial.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the values traditionally ascribed to museums in terms of education and aesthetics are strongly linked to class, as Alan Wallach explores in his book, Exhibiting Contradiction. During the 19th century, art museums in particular became a means of affirming the taste of upper class patrons who supported them through philanthropy. As temples of objects, museums essentially sacralized the tastes of the wealthy by disconnecting works of art from their historical contexts, presenting them instead as seemingly timeless examples of beauty and good aesthetics. As our expectations of museums have shifted from the temple of art to the education/activist model, art museums in particular have slowly adopted revisionist histories with mixed results, as they are now expected to undo the timeless mythology they constructed during the 19th century.

More recent texts like Patricia Banks’s Diversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums complicate Wallach’s discussion of class by examining intersecting identities of race or gender. Focusing specifically on African American museums, Banks argues that upper-middle and upper-class donors support museums for different reasons depending on their race, gender, age, and involvement with culture. Donors working in the for-profit sector, for instance, tend to support museums because of the positive association it projects onto their business, as well as for the opportunity to network with related professionals, whereas nonprofit donors get involved for more individualistic reasons. White donors perceive African American museums as spaces for integration, whereas Black philanthropists value them as specifically Black spaces telling Black narratives. Art collectors specializing in Black artists patronize museums as a way of legitimizing their private collections while simultaneously confronting the overly white, male canon of art history. In short, the kind of work a museum does for the community largely depends on the person you’re asking, underscoring that museums participate in a dialogue with their audiences.

Yet other authors take a different angle to museums by examining their potential as sites of resistance or questioning. In Decolonizing Museums, Amy Lonetree explores several case studies of indigenous museums performing decolonizing work, with the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways being considered especially successful. In particular, she explores how these institutions either do or do not center indigenous voices, including the use of indigenous frameworks of history, and confronting the ongoing trauma of genocide and other atrocities. In Lonetree’s scholarship, indigenous museums should be more than memorializing or reifying institutions. Rather, they should act as sites of healing by willingly confronting the traumas of white colonization.

While not overtly resistance-oriented in its subject matter, the contributors to the anthology Defining Memory make a case for smaller museums as alternatives to the imposing model of major institutions like the Met or the Field. By emphasizing a localized sense of place, highlighting quirky subject matter, or displaying collections with minimal interpretive texts due to limited staff or budgets, small museums, inadvertently or otherwise, can offer visitors greater autonomy in their own interpretive experiences. Additionally, they often highlight objects or subject matter that go against the perceived norms associated with larger institutions. Whether it’s a video recording of an Elvis sighting or the skeleton of a two-headed calf (or in the case of the Isle of Wight County Museum I visited before the pandemic, the world’s oldest ham), small, local museums often celebrate difference, an approach unintentionally in keeping with queer theory.

Still other authors argue for the potential of museums in taking a more radical approach to their work. In Curating Community, Stacy Douglas posits that museums should question and interrupt such western, liberal ideals as community, sovereignty, and autonomy. Focusing specifically on museums in South Africa, she posits that museums conventionally affirm individual autonomy as articulated in constitutions. Whereas constitutions are obligated to maintain questions of borders and sovereignty due to their role as legal documents, museums can and should actively question these ideas in order to get people to think about the interconnected, interdependent nature of existence.

As you might expect, I found this part of the list quite engaging. Given my interest in the Community Art Center Project, questions regarding what kind of work museums and galleries can and should do resonate with my research. As I’ve learned from the Roswell Museum’s early history, local and federal supporters had different answers to these questions, which affected the exhibitions and programming that took place there. Moving forward, I’ll definitely remember these readings as I continue delving into the museum history field.

More importantly, these readings have helped guide my ongoing thinking about museums as institutions. Whether I’ve visited them for fun, worked in them as a curator, or researched them as a scholar, museums have played a substantial role in my professional and personal life (especially my personal life, given that I met Brandon through the Roswell Museum). Yet as recent articles have pointed out, museums are problematic institutions given their complicity in white supremacy, colonialism, classism, and sexism. Should I decide to return to museums after the program, I’ll need to confront these issues in my work, and do my part to create more inclusive institutions. As I work on my dissertation, I know I’ll keep thinking about, and acting on, these questions.