Dissertation Work, June Update

It’s been a busy few weeks since the last time I talked about the dissertation, so let’s get caught up.

Following the approval of the prospectus and sketching out a tentative working schedule, I started reading more deeply into nineteenth-century mobile visual culture, including panoramas, magic lantern shows, and peep shows. Aside from learning more about some very cool subject matter, I wanted to get a better sense of these media as both spatial and mobile spectacles. I wanted to learn more about how they transformed their respective spaces into immersive sensory experiences, and in the case of lantern shows in particular, the role of intermediaries such as lecturers in the guiding of that experience. Given that part of my current argument rests on extension exhibitions temporarily transforming the spaces they occupy into galleries, I wanted to see how other mobile forms of didactic visual culture did this, especially with lantern shows given that illustrated lectures have been a staple of museum programming for decades.

John Vanderlyn, Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens at Versailles, 1818-1819, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art. I got to see this rare, surviving extant circular panorama during a recent visit to the Met. Panoramas like these provided immersive views of different places for their viewers, enabling them to travel to famous locales in Europe and other places vicariously.

I’ve also been reading more deeply about some of the antecedents to American art museums, including dime museums, the American Museum and other enterprises associated with P.T. Barnum, and the Peale Museum, among other institutions. With dime museums in particular, I’ve been interested in their synthesis of education and entertainment. As Andrea Stulman Dennett argues in Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America, though often derided for their propensity for exaggeration and exhibitions of human oddities and other spectacles that would now be considered inappropriate, dime museums are interesting because of their approach to audience. Unlike many museums today, dime museums were profit-based ventures that needed to generate income to maintain solvency. While this often meant opting for more salacious material in terms of exhibits, dime museums also took a fairly democratic approach to their audiences through their low admission price and self-fashioning as morally appropriate institutions for families and women, resulting in a fairly broad audience. As such, dime museums appealed to audiences across class and gender.

I’ve also been reading more deeply about some of the antecedents to American art museums, including dime museums, the American Museum and other enterprises associated with P.T. Barnum, and the Peale Museum, among other institutions. With dime museums in particular, I’ve been interested in their synthesis of education and entertainment. As Andrea Stulman Dennett argues in Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America, though often derided for their propensity for exaggeration and exhibitions of human oddities and other spectacles that would now be considered inappropriate, dime museums are interesting because of their approach to audience. Unlike many museums today, dime museums were profit-based ventures that needed to generate income to maintain solvency. While this often meant opting for more salacious material in terms of exhibits, dime museums also took a fairly democratic approach to their audiences through their low admission price and self-fashioning as morally appropriate institutions for families and women, resulting in a fairly broad audience. As such, Dennett posits that dime museums appealed to audiences across class and gender.

This is interesting to me because of the reading I’ve been doing about Progressive-era education reform. As with so many institutions that experienced their seminal development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, public schools in the United States emerged in part to assuage anxiety over industrialization, immigration, and the growth of cities. With their emphasis on structure, hierarchy, and measurable results attained through testing, schools were as much about maintaining the social order and preparing students for life in the workforce as they were about teaching specific curricula and content. Quite rightly, many scholars and activists have recognized schools as largely ideological exercises, not only through what they include or exclude in their curricula, but through the behaviors they reward or punish, with regular attendance, punctuality, and obedience being especially prized.

This all matters to me because as far as I can tell, schools were one of the main sites for outreach art exhibits as they developed. Libraries, military bases, social clubs, and other organizations also get referenced, but schools appear consistently, and I think this association plays an important role in the look and feel of outreach exhibits, both in terms of didactic content and intended audience. Compared to dime museums or moving panoramas, which appealed to adults and children in order to make the most profit, outreach exhibits often concentrate on children and adolescents as their intended audience, a focus that not only affects the experience of the exhibit itself, but more broadly art education.

Travel is often associated with seeing new places, but it also plays a key role in establishing and maintaining community, something I’m all too familiar with as someone who usually lives far away from most of my friends and family.

I’ve also been delving more deeply into mobility studies and other potential theoretical frameworks. Although it doesn’t relate directly to my research, I read selections from Godefoy Derosiers-Lauzon’s Florida’s Snowbirds: Spectacle, Mobility, and Community Since 1945 because I wanted to read more about the social aspects of mobility. A key part of Derosiers-Lauzon’s argument is that snowbirds and other seasonal visitors to Florida create a sense of community in part through their shared mobility and perception of the so-called Sunshine State as a refuge from the challenges and obligations of daily life. Since I believe that extension exhibits play a role in a museum’s sense of community by extending its presence beyond its immediate walls, I wanted to get a sense of how other scholars have been using mobility studies to discuss community, even if it doesn’t relate to my own work in terms of subject matter.

By far the most exciting thing that’s happened recently is the traveling I’ve done. Last week I took the train to New York to visit Art for the Community: The Met’s Circulating Textile Exhibitions, 1933-1942. This exhibit takes a look at an educational initiative the Met launched during the Great Depression called the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions program. Intended to serve local schools and related institutions around New York City, the program dispatched small exhibitions consisting of objects from the collection, with subjects ranging from textiles to arms and armor. Conceptually, the program shares many similarities with the Community Art Center Project, but with an emphasis on historical objects as opposed to contemporary art.

While on the train I came up with a list of questions to guide my experience at the Met. I transferred these questions from my main dissertation journal to a smaller one that fit in my pocket.

I wanted to visit the exhibition in-person because in addition to seeing the content of the show itself, I wanted to experience the show spatially. Since the exhibit modeled itself on the format of the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions, I thought this would be a way for me to get a sense of extension exhibitions from the 1930s and 1940s as spatial experiences, since I can’t visit the original shows themselves. Additionally, I believe that one of the reasons why outreach exhibitions tend to be regarded as effective interventions is how they’re remembered institutionally, with commemorative texts and exhibits emphasizing their positive qualities. By visiting the exhibition on-site, I also wanted to physically experience the show’s location in relation to the museum’s other galleries. Sure, I could have just looked at a map, but I wanted a sensorial understanding of entering the museum, walking through the hallways and galleries leading to the exhibit, and finally standing within the space itself. And what I experienced was illuminating, but I’ll save that for a future post.

This is the first time I’ve traveled overnight in more than a year, and I’m actually surprised at how okay I felt with it. I anticipated feeling overwhelmed or experiencing a lot more anxiety, but I felt fine walking through the city streets and taking in the Met’s galleries. Getting fully vaccinated several weeks ago definitely played a major role in my overall state of mind, as did an afternoon trip I took to the VMFA a couple days beforehand, which got me back in an urban setting on a more manageable level. But I also just wanted to travel somewhere new again. As an introvert I enjoy my time at home, but I also enjoy visiting different places, and the past year has been challenging with not being able to get out. So when I had the chance to explore again, it came back more easily than I expected.

In short, I’ve been keeping busy with research. I have more questions than answers at this point, but those questions will keep driving me forward.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *