Exhibition Work, August Update

The past few weeks have been a combination of logistical planning and ongoing conceptual research. On the logistics side, I’ve put together a preliminary checklist, which we’ll finalize over the next few weeks. I’ve also started contacting lending institutions so that we can secure the pieces we want. Last month, artist Joseph Morris, whose work we’ll be featuring, visited the museum so we could discuss potential locations for his pieces in terms of electrical and lighting needs. We’ve also got another Advisory Board meeting next week, where we start noting the dimensions, locations, and display needs of the ODU projects we’d like to feature in the gallery.

Crying Girl with Polichinelle plays the so-called “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s opera Carmen. Image: an automaton of a young girl in a pink dress and bonnet crying while holding a broken marionette puppet.

It hasn’t all been logistics though. I’ve also continued my deeper scholarly dives into the automaton collection. One of the leading dealers when it comes to automata is Theriault’s, which specializes in antique dolls; many of the Barry’s own automata were acquired through them. In addition to publishing books and catalogs, they’ve also posted recordings of their auctions on YouTube. Even better, many of the Barry’s automatons are featured in these auctions, so I’ve been watching them to get insights directly from Theriault’s. It’s been especially helpful with identifying music. I know that the automatons play popular 19th-century songs, but aside from Bizet’s “Toreador Song” most of these tunes aren’t that well known today, so I don’t recognize most of them. Details such as an extended shot of a paper label though, or a comment from the narrator, can provide song titles and other snippets that can help identify music. And thanks to the multiple recordings of musicians on YouTube, it’s possible to listen to recordings to verify the melody.

The Barry Art Museum’s Exotic Turkish Tea Drinker plays two songs: Valse Bleue by Alfred Margis, and the “Gavotte” from Ambroise Thomas’s 1866 comic opera Mignon. While Lambert premiered this design in 1885, the presence of Valse Bleue suggest this particular model was made a few years later, as that song wouldn’t be published until around 1900. Image: An automaton of a man sitting cross-legged with a hookah and a cup of coffee. He wears an elaborate turban, jacket, and silk pants.

As an amateur musician myself (I’ve been playing the flute since I was ten), I find the music a particularly interesting yet understudied aspect of automata. As far as I can tell, while the musical selection ideally synchronizes with the movements of the automaton, it doesn’t seem to relate to its subject matter. The Barry’s Turkish smoker, for instance, plays a gavotte from a popular comic opera set in a German village. I’ve also seen other examples of automatons like Crying Girl with Polichinelle playing different songs from the one in the Barry Museum. The selection of French songs makes sense because these were made in Paris, but they also shipped internationally. Did their buyers expect them to play French music because they were French in construction? And how readily would they have recognized these different songs? Did shoppers in department stores compare tune labels between different automata, or was it more about the general atmosphere of music rather than the recognition of a particular song or melody? These are the kinds of questions I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been working on identifying the Barry’s musical selections.

On the more contemporary side of things, I’ve also been reading about the history of prosthetics, as we’re exploring the possibility of featuring a hand in the ODU showcase. Modern prosthetics are intimately entwined with warfare and industrialization, both in terms of technology and imagined users. During the Civil War especially, demand for prosthetics increased in response to the massive numbers of amputations that occurred on the battlefield, themselves the results of new, highly destructive forms of ammunition. Hanger Prosthetics, for instance, one of the leading manufacturers of prosthetic limbs today, was founded in Virginia in the midst of the Civil War; its founder, J.E. Hanger, developed a leg with articulated knee and ankle joints after having his own leg amputated at the Battle of Philippi. Veteran amputees also shaped public perceptions and practices regarding prosthetics throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the average prosthetic imagined as a white male desiring the restoration of his previously abled-bodied state. Limb difference, in other words, was perceived as something to be fixed, repaired, or at least rendered unnoticeable. That perception has begun changing in recent decades, not least through the ongoing efforts of disability activists.

Image: A woman with a prosthetic arm made of different sections of wood, stone, and other materials; she is lifting one of the sections out from the wrist area. To learn more about this piece and other projects from the Alternative Limb Project, click here.

When it comes to disability studies, there’s quite a bit of exciting work out there right now. Bess Williamson’s book, Accessible America, explores the history of postwar architecture and design through the lens of disability, as society has shifted from an assimilationist mindset where people adapt to a singular model of access, to designs that accommodate a variety of bodies and abilities (note this is very much an ongoing process). EveryBody, an online exhibition supervised by Katherine Ott, explores the history of disability through artifacts at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. From photographs to wheelchairs to campaign buttons, these artifacts encourage viewers to consider both how people have adapted to disability and also presented themselves as people with disability. Viewers also get to think about broader shifting social attitudes about disability as well, from the detrimental effects of eugenics-minded thinking, to the efforts of activists to have society recognize disability as a seminal and valued part of the human experience, rather than something to be simply overcome. With regard to the exhibition, should we exhibit the hand I’ll be sure to remind viewers that prosthetics are a choice, and whether people with limb difference wear them or not is entirely up to them. The technology can be helpful, but it’s not the only option, and not everybody needs or wants it.

Beyond the exhibition, I’ve also been appreciating this research because I happen to have a personal connection with prosthetics. Specifically, my mother was born with congenital limb difference, and has worn a split-hook prosthetic arm since the age of two. As such, her limb difference and the prosthetic she wears for it have always been part of my life, from the cables and extra thick rubber bands she uses to maintain her device’s motility, to the periodic questions she gets from curious viewers (fun fact: my mother taught at the same high school I attended. Every year, some of her students would approach me in private to ask about it). I’ve been talking to my mother about my ongoing research, and once the show opens, I look forward to taking both my parents through it. More generally, the possibility of exhibiting a prosthetic hand in Motion/Emotion has given me the opportunity to explore my personal interests and experiences through a more scholarly lens, which I appreciate.

In short, between the music, prosthetics, and other elements, this show continues offering me the chance to synthesize different personal and academic interests while contextualizing the Barry Art Museum’s automaton collection.

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