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.

Chesapeake DH Consortium

When it comes to my digital humanities work, I’ve learned that I’m most likely to follow through with my aspirations when I assign myself deadlines and hold myself accountable to others. During my first semester, for example, I took a class on DH that required completing a substantial project, an undertaking that became my Scalar book. During the winter break, I took a week-long workshop in order to learn the basics of Python. One of my reading lists for comprehensive exams includes several seminal theoretical texts on the digital humanities. And most recently, on February 21st I participated in the first annual Symposium for the Chesapeake Digital Humanities Consortium, or CHDC.

The CDHC’s offical logo on Twitter.

The CDHC is a new organization intended to bring together digital humanists from around the Chesapeake region. All too often, we academics tend to feel isolated working at our respective institutions, and forget that there are numerous other professionals out there with similar ideas or ambitions. The CDHC and other groups like it offer an opportunity for DH scholars from various colleges and universities to come together, share their work, and discover new opportunities for collaboration. As an emerging digital humanist myself, I appreciate being able to join organizations that provide the chance to meet new people and expand my professional network.

Conveniently for me, the CDHC decided to hold its first symposium right at William and Mary, so unlike other conferences I’ve attended, I didn’t have to travel very far. Throughout the afternoon, I had the opportunity to learn about a wonderful array of digital projects, from Paul Martin’s study of the use of historiography in video games, to Liz Losh’s analysis of the use of emojis in Donald Trump’s tweets. While their work is very different from what I study, I appreciated being able to learn how they used DH to produce meaningful scholarly inquiries.

The highlight of the afternoon was the keynote speech from Dr. Catherine Knight Steele, a scholar who focuses on Black Digital Feminism (for a more detailed analysis of Dr. Steele’s talk, visit my colleague Ravynn Stringfield’s blog, Black Girl Does Grad School). Over the course of her talk, she shared key principles from her practice that could be applied to digital humanities as a field, including an emphasis on praxis over product, focusing on people rather than tools, and the importance of adhering to principles that emphasize an ethical digital scholarly practice. Of particular significance to her talk was the significance of slow, meaningful work, and the willingness to take the time to reflect on your practice and ways to improve it. Acknowledging the labor of all participants, and empowering them to take credit in a way that suits them best, was another key part of her address. Her emphasis on praxis especially resonated with me. When you always feel pressured to show results for your work, it’s important to remember that the means are at least as significant as the ends, and that sometimes it’s better to diminish output in order to concentrate on mindful scholarly practices.

Dr. Steele giving her keynote address. Her research focuses on how black feminists use blogging and other forms of technology, and more broadly, how black digital feminism can shape and enrich digital humanities as a field through an emphasis on praxis, people, and ethical principles.

Another highlight of the conference was being able to learn more about the work of my fellow cohorts at William and Mary, with one standout session focusing on the use of digital scholarship outside of the academy. Erin Bartram highlighted her work on Contingent, a magazine dedicated to publishing and paying underrepresented scholars such as graduate students or adjuncts. Ravynn Stringfield talked about her blog, Black Girl Does Grad School, and the importance of blogging for black women scholars as both a retreat from, and resistance to, barriers within the academy. Laura Beltran-Rubio highlighted her work as a fashion scholar on Instagram, which developed out of her teaching experiences in Colombia and her desire to make Spanish-language resources on fashion history available to wider audiences. Christopher Slaby focused on his experiences as a historian on Twitter and its potential for engaging in scholarly debates with both other academics and other audiences.

What I appreciated about this panel is the emphasis all the speakers placed on media projects outside the academy as work. Far from a distraction from scholarly endeavors, social media and other platforms can be a powerful way to reach audiences outside the academy. As such, it demands significant labor with regard to both the production of quality content and the cultivation of an online persona. I’ve never been especially proficient at using social media to advance my own scholarly work, but as a curator, I do believe in the importance of engaging audiences outside of the academy. It was inspiring, then, to see how these scholars use these platforms to extend their academic practices. Moving forward, I’ll remember the work my colleagues do as I think about using my own accounts more effectively.

Left to right: Christopher Slaby, Ravynn Stringfield, Laura Beltran-Rubio, and Erin Bartram discussing their digital work outside the academy. Erin works in museums, while Laura, Ravynn, and Christopher are all fellow graduate colleagues at William and Mary.

I also had the opportunity to introduce my own work, or rather my aspirations for a future project. During a five-minute lightning talk, I shared my desire to map out the Federal Community Art Center Project with the intention of highlighting the networks established through the sharing of exhibitions. Using an image of a map in my study as a springboard, I speculated about the advantages of setting the art center project to an animation that would enable viewers to follow the project chronologically, allowing them to see when exactly art centers opened or closed. I also discussed how I’d like to have visitors be able to click on individual sites and learn information such as when they opened, closed, which exhibitions they hosted, and who worked there. Finally, I talked about how I thought a digital platform would be an effective means to map out the actual travel routes of exhibitions, and to see how those routes contributed to different communication networks among the art centers. Through all these methods, I emphasized that a digital project could effectively evoke the dynamism of the Community Art Center Project.

This was a good experience for me. I’m not used to sharing speculative research when I present at conferences, but it was a great way to test out my ideas, and better yet, get good feedback for moving forward. One attendee, Marie Pellissier, was especially helpful in that she recommended Omeka as a potential platform. While I was aware of its effectiveness as a site for object-based online exhibitions, I didn’t know that it also has powerful mapping capabilities. Since I already have access to Omeka through Reclaim Hosting, I can start experimenting with it as soon as I’ve taken care of exams.

Overall, this was a great experience. I got to meet a lot of interesting people, learn about some great projects, get suggestions for my own work, and overall think about the significance of developing a mindful, ethical scholarly practice. I’m glad I attended, and I look forward to staying involved with this group.

Staging the Space Between

May was a busy month for me in the conference realm. After taking a hiatus in 2018, I returned to presenting and networking with two wonderful sessions. Since I’ve already discussed the first conference, Making History Public(s), today I’ll talk about the second one, Staging the Space Between, 1914-1945, which took place at South Dakota State University between May 30-June 1.

Image result for staging the space between

This session acts as the annual conference for the Space Between Society, an academic association that focuses on the art, literature, and culture of the interwar period. Whereas Making History Public(s) was geared exclusively toward graduate students, the presenters at the Space Between were a mixture of professors at different stages of their careers, as well as graduate students. The membership is also transnational, with participants hailing from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. As a result, I was able to network with students and faculty alike, and share my ongoing research with professionals working both in and outside the United States.

The theme of the conference was staging, literally and metaphorically. My paper focused on the Community Art Center Project as local and national space, with the Roswell Museum serving as my primary case study. I essentially presented a condensed version of the paper I wrote for my independent study, which focused on the tensions between the museum’s FAP staff and its local sponsors. For me, the Roswell Museum offers an excellent opportunity to explore the practical and conceptual challenges of implementing programs like the Community Art Center Project in places that already have their own conceptions of education and culture. It’s one thing to read about the educational initiatives of Holger Cahill and other FAP administrators, but it’s an entirely different matter to see how these ideas actually manifest in art centers, and more importantly, how people respond to them. To fit the conference theme, I argued that the Roswell Museum itself acted as a stage for the performance of different educational philosophies as manifested through exhibitions, classes, and special programs.

In addition to meeting a wide range of scholars, I also gleaned helpful ideas or frameworks for considering my future research. One theme that emerged frequently was the idea of embracing the ephemerality of performance as a means of interpreting incomplete archives. The keynote speaker, Claire Warden, argued about the merits of learning from failure as encountered through recreating historical performances, and the information we can learn from embodied experience. Even if we can’t recreate a historical dance, play or performance with 100% accuracy, we can still receive insight from the experience of trying to recreate it, particularly through the ways it challenges us to read deeply into extant documentation such as photographs or letters.

As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the challenges of working with incomplete archives and approaching speculation without overshadowing the voices you were trying to represent. Beyond dealing with archives, however, the keynote and other talks encouraged me to think of the museum as performance, not only through overt performances such as the staging of the mystery play Los Pastores in 1938, but also through the mounting of exhibitions, classes, and other activities. While the performative nature of museum attendance and exhibition staging has long been noted, it’s helping me to think about my materials from a different perspective, which is always a good thing.

This was a full conference, so I didn’t do as much exploring as I normally like, but I was still able to get out and about. Since I flew into Sioux Falls, I explored this area before heading to the conference, specifically by visiting Falls Park. This area was an important source of hydroelectric power during the late 19th century, and remnants of this early industrialization are still present in the landscape, from the power plant that has since been converted to a cafe, to the ruins of a flour mill that burned down in the 1950s. As I read about the terraforming that took place to this area to accommodate power, I kept thinking about environmental histories such as Nature’s Metropolis and the interconnectedness between nature and civilization.

The university is also very nice, with a strong agricultural focus. I only saw a small part of it, but I liked what I saw, including the art museum, and the McCrory Gardens, which I walked through before driving back to Sioux Falls.

Speaking of staging, we also had the opportunity to listen some interwar music at the University’s Fine Arts Center, shown here. The colors and materials all relate to South Dakota ecology, from the forests to the badlands.

Overall, I had a very positive experience. It was encouraging to have so many established faculty express interest in my work, and it was a great opportunity to both network and be introduced to new works and ideas, all of which will benefit my future research. I feel particularly fortunate to have been able to present so early in my time at William and Mary, as I know the connections I’ve made here will benefit me for years to come.

Plus you can’t go wrong with a conference that gives you a free tote bag.

Conference in Ann Arbor

I have a habit of ending my academic year somewhat frantically. At the end of my first year at Williams, I turned in all my papers a week early so that I could start a summer fellowship at the Old York Historical Society. The following year, barely a week after graduating, I moved from New England to Wyoming to commence an internship at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. This year, I drove 12 hours to Michigan the day after I turned in my last paper to present at a conference.

But what a conference! As harried as I may have felt preparing for it, I’m really glad I went.

The conference in question was “Making History Public(s): Presenting the Collective,” sponsored by the University of Michigan’s History Department. The topic of the conference, as the title suggests, was public history. Many of the papers addressed the practical side of teaching public history, with examples including a paper describing the collaborative process of reinterpreting of a historic farm space on a limited budget, or a paper describing a potential class syllabus on police brutality. Others dealt with more historical instances of public-building, as was the case in a paper describing the infrastructure needed to transport live giraffes to the United States during the 19th century, or a presentation exploring the racial and gender implications of teeth whitening during the 18th century.

Looking into the main galley. The exhibition on view includes plates from the Index of American Design, on loan from the FAP, with antiques from local residents, giving the community a role and presence in exhibition content.

My paper fell into the latter camp, as I was talking about the Roswell Museum’s public building during the WPA era. Essentially I explored federal art centers as venues for both art education and community-building through a case study of the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico, as it’s the art center I still know best at this point. I argued that from its inception, the Roswell Museum navigated ongoing tensions between the expectations of its local sponsors and federal staff regarding public outreach and engagement, as federal personnel and local supporters often had different expectations for the museum. Despite these disagreements, the museum consistently attempted to address multiple audiences by inviting visitors to contribute objects to exhibitions, offering classes at different locations in town, and acting as a performance space. After providing an overview of these activities, I then shared a few pages from my Scalar book as a means of showing how digital scholarship can begin to render the publics affiliated with these institutions more readily visible.

One building, many publics.

This was a great conference for me for several reasons. From a topical standpoint, this was the first time I participated in a conference in a discipline other than art history or museum studies, so it was a good way to test whether my work really is interdisciplinary enough to engage other academic fields. It had also been about two years since I last presented in this type of academic setting, so it was a good opportunity to refamiliarize myself with that process.

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The museum’s role as a meeting and performance space offered some of the most interesting efforts in public-building.

Most importantly, I got some good feedback about my work, received helpful suggestions or recommendations for moving forward, and made some great new contacts. As I mentioned in a previous post, I participated in a lot of conferences when I was working, but the papers usually related to an exhibition I was working on at the time. As soon as the show opened, my research on it usually ceased so that I could move on to the next thing. I’m going to be living with my art center work for a long time though, so conferences will be a good way to present ongoing work and new ideas as I keep digging into the subject. If nothing else, the reception I got at this conference was a good reminder that the work I’m doing is interesting and worthwhile to people other than myself.

C:\Users\s.woodbury\Desktop\Los Pastores 3.jpg
Among the most significant performances to take place at the Roswell Museum during the WPA era was the staging of a Mystery Play, Los Pastores, by Roswell residents, all in Spanish. Here’s a picture from the cast, late 1938.

The conference was good for more than academics, however. Stay tuned next week to learn about my adventures in Michigan itself.

Conference Abstracts, or How to Talk About Your Research in Different Ways

An event that many graduate students will be familiar with is the academic conference. It’s a chance to network, get feedback on your work, see someplace new, and add something to your CV. Schools love it when their students go to conferences, and students usually enjoy getting the chance to interact with people outside their home department.

October foliage in Taos, where I once presented a paper on Howard Cook.

If you’re going to a conference as an attendee or volunteer only, all you need to do is register, but if you want to present, you have to go through a process known as the abstract submission. First, you get forwarded a call for papers, usually from your department head or registrar. If you research aligns with the conference theme, you write an abstract, or a 300-word summary describing what you’ll be talking about and why. You also generally submit a CV or resume to show what you’ve done so far. From there, you wait to see whether you got in or not. It’s rare that you get accepted to every conference you submit an abstract to, so submitting is no guarantee that you’ll get in. If you do, great, if not, you’ve still got an abstract that could become the basis of a term paper, article, or even another conference paper.

Hanging out at the Great Salt Lake. I traveled here in 2016 to participate in the conference, Branding the American West.

I’ve been fortunate enough to present at several conferences already, especially when I was working in Roswell. Most calls for papers are eligible to graduate students only, but once in a while I’d get an announcement for conferences open to other scholars such as curators or artists. If I was working on an exhibition whose subject aligned with a conference topic, I’d submit an abstract. As a result, I was able to travel to places such as Utah, Oklahoma, and California, all while introducing the collection to new audiences.

I don’t believe in resting on your laurels, though, so I’ve been working on new conference abstracts. What’s been most interesting to me is how my focus has changed. When I was working in Roswell, I presented on whatever exhibition I was researching at that time, whether it was the World War II drawings of Howard Cook or the pueblo studies of Peter Moran. No two papers were alike, and with the exception of my work on Peter Hurd, they didn’t result in publications.

Instead, these conferences gave me the opportunity to share the collection with audiences outside of Roswell while rebranding myself as an Americanist. With a background in Old Master painting, I worried about the discrepancy between my academic work and my museum work, especially when I decided to apply to American-focused programs. By participating in several conferences, I demonstrated that my work as an Americanist was serious enough to warrant interest.

Not surprisingly, the Roswell Museum plays an important role in my current abstracts, though it is not the core focus either.

Nowadays, however, my objectives are quite different. Since I’m already in an academic program, I’m much more focused on my work with community art centers, as this will be the focus of my dissertation. As a result, instead of submitting abstracts on different topics, they’re all variations on community art centers, with the fundamental questions or focus reflecting the theme of the conference.

I’ve submitted four abstracts so far since coming to William and Mary, with each one focusing on a different facet of the community art centers. What I’ve appreciated about writing these abstracts is that they’ve helped me redirect my focus away from the Roswell Museum, and more broadly on the Community Art Center Project itself. Don’t get me wrong, Roswell plays an important role in my research, but I need to begin situating it into a larger narrative about art and its reception during the New Deal era. Conference abstracts are a great way to begin thinking about broader framing questions.

One of the exhibitions at the Roswell Museum included small mosaic studies for larger projects such as this one, “Recreation in Long Beach,” now located at the Harvey Milk Promenade Park and Equality Placa in California. Image courtesy of https://livingnewdeal.org/projects/long-beach-plaza-mosaic-long-beach-ca/
Textiles designs by Ruth Reeves were also shown at the Roswell Museum. Read more about these works here.

In one conference exploring the sensorium in art, for instance, I proposed talking about sense-experience as conveyed through the traveling exhibitions hosted at community art centers. For a while now I’ve noticed that the Roswell’s traveling shows included a lot of tactile objects such as mosaics, tapestries, and even floral bouquets, and writing an abstract gave me an opportunity to focus my loose observations. Another abstract focused on the challenges of sending traveling exhibitions to New Mexico and other places located far from New York and other metropolitan centers. A third abstract proposed exploring the exhibition spaces of the art centers themselves. While the Roswell Museum was housed in a building designed as a gallery space, most community art centers used storefronts, libraries, and other extant, available spaces. Since I intend to focus my dissertation on several art centers, a preliminary exploration of these spaces could be useful for future research and writing. Other conferences focus on art patronage and audience building.

The Southside Community Art Center, recently declared a national treasure, operates out of an old house. It is the only true extant federal art center still in operation. Other survivors like the Roswell Museum or the Walker Art Center have evolved into different institutions. I definitely need to focus more attention on this art center moving forward.

Working on these abstracts has been a great way to think about my work from different perspectives and articulate my observations into potential research questions. I don’t expect to acceptance to all of them, but even if I don’t go to a conference, the abstract I wrote for it becomes a great framing device for future chapters or articlest. If nothing else, abstract submissions are wonderful exercises in clear thinking, and should be written regularly.

As it turns out though, I’ll be presenting at two different conferences this summer, so now I’ve got some papers to get ready. Luckily for me, I enjoy traveling, so here’s to more opportunities to get on the road.