Tuesday, November 16, 2010

First Person Museum Exhibit Review

First Person Museum at the Painted Bride Art Center. Philadelphia, PA. Dana Dorman, Museum Coordinator. Sponsored through an Engage 2020 Innovation Grant and by the Pew Center through the Arts & Heritage via the Heritage Philadelphia Program. November 5 – December 18, 2010.

The museum world needs experimentation and innovation. Absent these, museums face obsolescence. A recent attempt at innovation right here in Philadelphia was First Person Arts’ First Person Museum. The museum’s objective was to demonstrate the ways that “ordinary” people can interact with and impact history. The way in which organizers attempted to demonstrate this concept was to collect the possessions of Philadelphians by means of inviting them to participate in story circles. Those in attendance at these events told the stories of the objects that meant the most to them. The staff of First Person Arts then chose the stories and items that would be included in the First Person Museum. According to the First Person Museum website, attendees to the gallery, housed at the Painted Bride Art Center, would not merely view these objects, they would "see the stories behind the objects. [They]’ll watch them captured on film and video by JJ Tiziou and David Kessler. [They]’ll hear them recorded by the producers of NPR’s Radio Diaries. [They]’ll read them when Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Dianna Marder puts them on the page. And [they]’ll learn the greater impact of these everyday things when graduate students from Temple University tell us about their historical significance"(Source).

Certainly, the First Person Museum utilized extensive multi-media platforms. Multi-media exhibits have become crucial to optimal interaction with modern-day museum-goers. Certain objects were accompanied by audio stories, which users can access via a pair of headphones placed near the item. A benefit of this feature was hearing the story of the object in the owner’s own words. However, there was no way to stop or pause the audio recordings, so visitors couldn’t be sure the story started at the beginning at the time of placing the headphones to their ears. If the story was in the middle, the user was forced to listen to the end and then begin again. Similarly, other objects were supplemented with televisions playing recordings of the object owners telling the stories of their things. The beauty of these recordings was being able to witness the emotion the objects in the museum evoked in their owners. However, again, there was no way for viewers to control the start of the taped interviews. Visitors must wait for the recordings to finish if they happened to find them at some point in the middle. As there were several audio and video pieces accompanying objects, this repeated experience could be frustrating.

The First Person Museum was reasonably light on text panels, presumably to circumvent museum fatigue and to engage visitors more fully through other means. Each object was accompanied by a small object history created by Temple University graduate students. Those objects unaccompanied by audio or video were complimented by an additional quote from the owner in text on a sign somewhere near the item on display. Mentioned previously, each and every object was supplemented by a text panel with an object history. As quoted earlier from the museum’s website, these panels were supposed to elucidate the object’s “historical significance.” However, many of the chosen object captions relate very directly to the objects whose historical significance they were meant to be illuminating. Some of the captions are very specific to their object, rather than placing them in a greater historical context. In other words, certain of the captions could only describe the objects they accompanied, rather than placing the objects within their greater historical importance, though the captions were intelligently and thoughtfully composed. These captions hovered around fifty words in length, which made history in the most literal sense only a small part of the First Person Museum exhibits.

The environment of the exhibit imitated a home setting. The objects were housed on end tables or nightstands, dining room tables or desks. There were comfortable chairs for attendees to sit in and take in the objects. However, the night the reviewer was in attendance, visitors were unsure what to make of the set-up. Were they allowed to sit in the chairs? Were the chairs on display as well? As the night wore on, increasing numbers of visitors seemed to catch on that the seating was there to accommodate their interaction with the objects.

The arrangement of the objects throughout the two rooms at the Painted Bride Art Center was a bit cumbersome. The room directly in front of visitors upon entry was crowded with objects, creating a somewhat cramped atmosphere, particularly with many visitors present. The room to attendees’ left was far sparser, leaving the exhibit feeling slightly imbalanced. An upstairs room contained only a television for viewing all of the interviews regarding the objects, a couch for viewing, and a station at which visitors could submit their own stories. A similar station was available downstairs. One assumed that the upstairs was underutilized out of safety concerns and lack of handicap accessibility.

Among the professed goals of the exhibit were that “visitors will recognize that they endow objects with value” and “visitors will think about their own stuff differently” (Source). The reviewer heard many attendees discussing that the objects on display evoked memories of their own life experiences and interactions with objects. One visitor proclaimed that each object brought to mind one of her own objects and made her think about the ways in which she affected history over the course of her life. Therefore, the exhibit clearly achieved a few of its intended goals. Nonetheless, one might wonder whether the First Person Museum was a history exhibit or an art show.

Maybe hybrid history exhibits and art galleries are the museums of the future. Maybe combining art and history will be one way in which museums can reach out and further engage visitors to keep them curious and coming back to museums. At the time of this writing, First Person Arts categorized the First Person Museum as a prototype. Clearly, there was some room for improvement should future incarnations be undertaken, but the exhibit was engaging and, according to several attendees, achieved what the organizers set out to do. Art, history, or both, the First Person Museum was fun, smart, and appealing.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

First Person Museum Exhibit Captions

Below are my four options for the caption of Amy's birth certificate as exhibited this autumn at the First Person Museum to be housed in the Painted Bride Art Center. Please feel free to leave comments with critiques or your favorite.

Caption 1:

About German Birth Certificates

German birth certificates are issued by the municipal government Registry Office where the person is born. The document displays basic demographical information, including the child’s first, middle, and last name; mother’s and father’s names; sex; date and place of birth; issuing organization; place of registration; name and office of certifier.

Written by Sara A. Borden

Caption 2:

About American Birth Certificates

The Census Bureau mandated standardized birth certificates in 1900 and issued them until 1946 when the duty transferred to the Public Health Service. Today, the Division of Vital Statistics, National Center for Health Statistics, collects birth data. The federal government no longer issues birth certificates, leaving this to individual states.

Written by Sara A. Borden

Caption 3:

About Citizenship

Birth certificates represent the relationship between a government and its people. These documents are proof of citizenship which entitle bearers to certain rights. These rights may be as basic as voting or as complex as running for office and holding jobs. A birth certificate is a paper representation of identity.

Written by Sara A. Borden

Caption 4:

About Other

This is an American citizen’s birth certificate from Germany, issued in 1947. This time period was rife with racial tension and struggle in the United States. The German document bears no indication of the race of the person to whom it was issued, in contrast to some American birth certificates.

Written by Sara A. Borden

Monday, September 27, 2010

First Person Museum Exhibit Design

This week, we were tasked with creating our own exhibit design for the First Person Museum. We were to follow the six steps detailed in Alice Parman’s article, “Exhibit Makeovers: Do-It-Yourself Exhibit Planning.” As she proscribes, I began by thinking about my favorite and least favorite museum experiences through my years of visiting such institutions. Additionally, I imagined that I had unlimited funds for such an endeavor. I’ve picked out some of the most pertinent concerns in Parman’s article to bullet-point in my exhibit design below. Additionally, I’ve included a rendering below (albeit quite primitive: I have woefully limited skills with computer graphics programs) of roughly how I would plan out my exhibit space.

Mission Statement: (Taken from the First Person Arts website) Transforming the drama of real life into memoir and documentary art to foster appreciation for our unique and shared experience. Everyone has a story to tell. Sharing our stories connects us with each other and the world.

Take-Home Messages: Everyone can be a part of history and tell a story that is part of the same. History is accessible.

The Storyline: History is happening all the time, and it’s not something that only happens to crusty, old, white guys. History is something that happens to everyone and we all can have a role, whether we know it or not.

Object Arrangement: When I think of my least favorite museum exhibits, they are usually the ones which involved heavy reading. Anyone who knows me knows I love to read, so for me to make such an assertion must mean that overly-abundant text is tiresome in a museum. I think I would make the First Person Arts Museum completely multimedia and interactive. I volunteered with Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center. One of the most popular features was “voting booths.” Patrons seemed to be nearly compelled by curiosity to part the curtains and enter the spaces. Once inside, visitors saw what looked like voting booths and were presented with computer screens. They could touch spots on the screens and learn more
about the process of elections throughout the 50 states. Another museum exhibit I found compelling was at the African American Museum of Philadelphia. Here, visitors were presented with large television screens playing videos of actors portraying historical figures. Alongside the screens were buttons visitors could push to “ask” questions of the person portrayed. Each button triggered a video in which the actor answers the visitor’s question. I would model my version of the First Person Museum on these ideas. I would create a circular space with a series of “pods” around the walls, similar to the video rooms near the giant heart at the Franklin Institute. Each pod would contain the object in question, as well as an interactive video screen explaining the significance of each object. Objects would be housed on pedestals in clear boxes inside the pods. The owners of the objects would tell their story on video. Visitors could choose that option from among several buttons in the pod. Additionally, the historians involved would create short video sessions to explain the historical context as well as the social and cultural context. I would make sure that each object had a video segment to tie it to a larger moment in history. For instance, my object, a birth certificate, has gained greater historical significance (or notoriety) in light of Barack Obama’s presidency. All of the objects would have a segment relating them to history, in addition to their personal meanings. Each of these segments would necessarily be short to hold viewer attention. As a class, we are working with 19 objects, which may be too many for this format. Additionally, I would create an introductory pod to briefly explain the exhibit. However, it wouldn’t be necessary for visitors to start on one particular spot. As such, I wouldn’t have a particular linear arrangement for the objects. Additionally, the outsides of the pods would have decorations or graphics alluding to their content so visitors could choose the ones that most interested them. Finally, I would create an area in the center with seating and tables. I would provide pens and paper for people to leave feedback, contribute their own stories, and share their experiences of the museum. I might pose questions in this area for viewers to contemplate and write an answer. Additionally, I would encourage patrons to discuss their experiences with each other.

As promised, here is a rough rendering of what I imagine my exhibit space would look like:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Object-Driven History

If I’d been tasked with the assignment of examining the greater pop cultural significance of birth certificates, say, in 2007, I wouldn’t have thought there was any at all. Birth certificates in political discourse? No way. Then things got ugly during the 2008 election cycle. Mud was being flung in every direction and Barack Obama, young political phenom from Chicago, had his citizenship called into question via the validity, or lack thereof, of his birth certificate. Was he secretly a Kenyan, not an American? Was it illegal for him to run for President of the United States? Conspiracy theorists first claimed Obama had no certificate at all. Once the Obama camp provided a Hawaiian certification of live birth, the document’s legality was then interrogate. Claims were bantered about that Obama’s documentation was forged. Why wasn’t the state seal visible? (Turns out Obama’s was stamped on the reverse and only the front of the document was scanned; the stamp didn’t render well for this reason.) The Obama camp blacked out the certificate number when they released the scan as proof of his citizenship. This was taken as sure proof the document was a fake. It couldn’t have possibly been an attempt to protect the future President’s privacy. Verifications of Obama’s legal citizenship came from all corners: judges ruled in his favor; the Hawaiian government confirmed he was born in their state; the Honolulu Advertiser and Star-Bulletin offered up the Obama birth announcements published in their papers in 1961. Obama was proven an American citizen, but birth certificates earned a place in pop culture and political history. Obama launched a still-running “Fight the Smears” website with a page dedicated to the validity of his documentation. Popular internet myth-busting site Snopes.com has an extensive page defending Obama’s status as an American. A simple Google search for “birth certificate” gives extensive results regarding the Obama birth certificate controversy. However, no matter how many voices join the chorus to proclaim Obama’s American citizenship, conspiracy theorists cling to the idea that Obama’s presidency is illegal.

Birth certificates represent the responsibility of a government toward its citizens. If one can prove one was born in a particular nation, one is entitled to certain government privileges and services. Birth certificates prove one has the full rights of citizenship in the issuing country, thus making a forgery a valuable thing in places like the United States. A real birth certificate, however, is a basic building block of one’s identity, a symbol of rights and privileges, even status. As is the case with Amy’s birth certificate, the real thing means different things to different people and even has the power to validate one’s person. Or not.

Monday, September 13, 2010

History of Things

My object, a birth certificate, is owned by a woman named Amy. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to meet Amy at the First Person Arts event tonight, so I don’t have much information on her ownership of the certificate. Amy was born in Germany, but her father was an American soldier, so she is a citizen of the United States. Her treasured possession is her German birth certificate, but the history of birth certificates outside the United States is especially elusive. The history of issuing birth certificates to American children born outside the United States is even more so.

Birth certificates were not commonly issued in the United States until the early 1900s. The Census Bureau created the first standardized birth certificate in 1900. This governmental body devised a system by which to annually collect birth (and death) statistics from each state. This was a response to the increased need for information on circumstances in which American citizens lived and comprehensive data on population increases and decreases, as well as other social conditions. The Bureau retained this responsibility until 1946 when the system was overhauled and the duty was reassigned to the United States Public Health Service. Today, the Division of Vital Statistics of the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) collects birth and death data. However, the federal government no longer is the body to issue birth certificates. This duty presently falls to each individual state and U.S. territories. Each state or territorial government is responsible for submitting birth statistics to the NCHS. The NCHS is responsible for making sure each state submits consistent and uniform data which are compatible with those issued by every other state or territory. Through this system, nearly anyone born after 1900 would have been issued a birth certificate.

As mentioned, I can’t speak to Amy’s specific case. However, often parents keep their children’s birth certificates until adulthood, at which time the forms are passed on to those children whose documents they are. The papers are used to prove identity and citizenship. A birth certificate is confirmation one exists; a validation of one’s being. I can’t testify as to how Amy has used her birth certificate specifically, nor can I say I have interacted with Amy’s birth certificate physically. However, the story of the paperwork touches me greatly. Though I was reluctant to learn the story, suppose the tale is relevant here. Amy was born in Germany in 1947 to an American soldier who married her mother, a German woman, while stationed overseas. The couple was of two different races. Amy’s American birth certificate is stamped with the word, “Mulatto.” Her German birth certificate, which is her treasured possession, is not marked by any such hurtful language. I find this to be tremendously poignant: Amy’s birth certificate is significant for what is absent; for what it is not.

For further information and to view my source for the above, please click here.

Monday, September 6, 2010

History from Things

I have not yet had the opportunity to see my object in person, but I’m looking forward to doing so on September 13. That said, much of what I’ll write about Amy’s birth certificate in this post will be conjecture. Out of respect for the amount of personal data on a birth certificate, I’ve decided not to post a picture of the document here.

As I mentioned, I have not had a firsthand experience of Amy’s birth certificate, but from the photograph I’ve seen, the record appears to have been printed on a fairly standard sheet of paper measuring about eight-and-a-half by eleven inches in my estimation. However, there isn’t anything to provide a frame of reference in the image I received, so the page could be smaller or larger than that size. This would make its weight fairly negligible. The document is unadorned save for an official stamp. The text is typewritten, though a few fields were filled in by hand. The object dates from 1947, when paper was a mass-produced, inexpensive material. Every birth warranted a birth certificate, so the government would have had plenty of the forms on hand. Therefore, the cost in making the object was negligible. Additionally, the form wouldn’t have cost anything monetary to receive.

The document is written in German, a language in which I am not fluent, unfortunately. Also, the picture I received is blurry, so the text is illegible despite my lack of prowess with the German. However, the image makes very clear that the birth certificate has been handled often. The document is dog-eared and beginning to tear along the creases as though it has been folded and unfolded many times. Bits of the edges are missing. Obviously, this piece of paper has meant a lot to its owner and symbolizes more than a mere demographical document.