Dissertation Work, April Update

The last time I posted about the dissertation I had just come back from a research trip to New York. Right now, I’m in the midst of writing a very preliminary draft of Chapter Two. Let’s take a look at what I’ve been thinking about.

Students from Theodore Roosevelt High School, the Bronx, visiting the exhibition Arms and Armor, 1939. Image courtesy of Stephanie Post, “Caravans of Art”: The Neighborhood Circulating Exhibition Series, 1933–42 | The Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org).

Beyond recounting the historical narrative of the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibition Program, I’ve been focusing on two main ideas. The first is the program’s spatial politics, and more specifically the sites it visited. What I’ve been focusing on specifically are public high schools, since these alone constituted about half of the total number of sites. The reason why this has interested me is that schools are their own distinct ecosystem in terms of space, population, and schedule. From assemblies to tests to vacations, they have specific schedules that programs such as the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions have to accommodate. This accommodation indelibly influences how these programs operate, from when they appear to their content if they’re trying to align with curricula. Additionally, as public education institutions, schools serve an important civic role, not only through the content of their classes, but the behavioral norms they impose, ideas I’ve been exploring since I did my preliminary research for Chapter 1.

The fact that the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions visited schools so frequently isn’t surprising given their education emphasis, but I want to explore that connection more deeply by questioning the seemingly natural connection between schools and museums. Which audiences potentially get excluded, for instance, when you target schools as your primary site for outreach programming? What would an outreach program look like, and what connotations would it assume, if it staged exhibitions in department stores, saloons, or even religious institutions? How do museums and schools mutually reinforce one another through outreach programming? Those are some of the questions I’ve been thinking about recently.

The other topic I’ve been exploring in relation to the archival documents is the tension underpinning the program. From the complex scheduling required to implement the shows, to misunderstandings regarding the payment of fees, to even the occasional broken object, the extant documents in the archive hint at ongoing tensions throughout the program’s duration, adding nuance to the Met’s public assessment of its resounding success. To be fair, the program did run remarkably smoothly considering all the things that could have gone wrong, and it did reach an impressive number of people. I’m not trying to undermine the program’s achievements. Nevertheless, these tensions can’t be ignored either, and rather than consider them obstacles to be overcome, I’m arguing that they’re intrinsic to the program itself.

My advisor encouraged me to focus on these tensions for a couple of reasons. First, it offers a way to acknowledge the labor of people operating outside the Met’s network of curatorial and administrative staff, including the security guards who protected the shows, the custodians who maintained the schools, and other unnamed individuals. These people may not have selected the objects that went into the shows or written their interpretive labels, but they did contribute to the exhibitions through the concerns they expressed over building safety, or through maintaining the space where the exhibition was housed. Their names may not be remembered, but they need to be acknowledged.

Second, looking at these tensions offers a way to get outside of the Met’s perspective regarding the program. Like the Roswell Museum archive, the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibition Program is largely remembered through the lens of its administrators: the curators, directors, and other high-ranking museum staff. Beyond the occasional class thank-you note or letter from a teacher, the archive doesn’t contain a lot of material relating to the audiences of these shows. We don’t know how much time visitors spent at the shows, what they thought of the works, or how the exhibitions affected their lives after the experience. For the Met, what made these shows a success were the numbers of people who visited them, a quantitative emphasis that museums continue to rely on when justifying budgets to their local government or other funding sources for money. Looking at the disagreements between museum staff and non-museum workers and volunteers doesn’t suddenly endow these audiences with a voice, but it does emphasize the fact that the Museum wasn’t the only participant in the program. It may have fronted all of the costs, but it wasn’t the sole contributor either when it came to the exhibition’s appearance and reception.

Finally, looking at these tensions offers a way to think about how museums work with different community institutions. Such partnerships are often touted as a good thing because they show the museum’s commitment to public service while challenging the idea that they’re inward-looking organizations focused only on collections management. Yet beyond the assertions of enrichment and increased visitation numbers, what does that kind of collaboration actually look like on the logistical level? What are the expectations of each institution, and how do these differing objectives result in tensions or disagreements? How do questions of space, preservation, or labor influence the program? Again, I’m not saying that community partnerships are a bad thing. Rather, I’m following Bowker and Star’s assertion that logistics, those seemingly mundane, tedious tasks associated with scheduling, budgeting, and so on, significantly shape how we understand things.

In essence, I’ve been focusing on the very thing I’ve spent my curatorial career avoiding: drama. From the occasional spats between staff members to disagreements between staff and other city officials, I always hated getting involved in the tensions that always happen when you work with other people. I used to lament about it to other curators, saying that Board disagreements and department clashes pulled me away from the real work of art historical research, which I had spent four years of college and two years of grad school learning how to do. When I was applying to Ph.D. programs, I remember thinking how good it would be to get out of the museum and focus on research, to not worry about ongoing feuds or unexpected meetings (knowing, of course, that such things live in academia too). And yet, now that I’m away from all that, what’s gotten my attention? The disagreements, confusion, and other moments of tension that I spent so long trying to leave behind. Now that I’m not dealing with these so-called museum brushfires on a daily basis, I can take a closer look at them and see how they fit into larger infrastructures of access.

Like any first draft, this chapter has a ways to go, and currently has a bit of a kitchen sink feel to it as I try out different ideas and see what sticks. Still, one of the hardest parts of writing is getting something down, so I know that as much as this work will change, it’s still an important part of the process. No matter how many times I have to rewrite, reorganize, or rethink, at least I have plenty of rough, pliable material at my disposal.

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