Tuesday, November 20, 2007

More Thoughts About Being Child Friendly

My priorities for a museum visit have changed in recent years with the addition of children to my family, so I feel that having joined an important demographic for many museums, whose target audience is the family, I have become acutely aware of the particular needs of this audience and how they might best be served. Although many museums have redefined themselves as audience-centered in the past decade and have made efforts to become more "child friendly" with increased programming and development of interactive offerings, there are many that have more quickly adopted a rhetoric and put off physical accommodations for another day.

Often specific child age groups are ignored like pre-school children for those of school age; the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts is one that comes to mind. Although it has focused much on programming for school children, its physical plant has changed little in half a century. It hasn't struck on a way to engage children within the museum itself with its world-class collection of paintings, sculpture, and texture, although there have been some feeble attempts, or rather space and cues have been created for child audiences but without adequate staff, or even instructions for parent guided tours these remain silent and ineffective to the weekday visitor. A children's activity room lacks any written explanations for parent guides or links to the msueum's collections. There is a cool interactive screen that allows kids to draw with their finger on a screen and some other activities and second space for kids but, again, what about the collection itself; is that for adults alone? To be fair, this museum has some great print resources in their library, and space is devoted to children, but why would I come to the quietude of a museum with my children to sit in an equally restrictive library and look at books with them; I can do that at the public library with less need for restraint of my kids.

Other art museums, like Harvard’s Fogg Museum, which has seen little change architecturally in its interior in decades, perhaps longer, offers visitors with children little, for cramped elevators don’t accommodate some strollers, there are no bathroom changing stations, or official private nursing areas that have become par for the course for many museums that seemingly want greater attendance. But maybe I speak too soon, for the Fogg will undergo a major refitting soon. Until then, some of us who want museums to be an important part of their kids' childhood will have to keep searching for that perfect experience worth frequent and continued visits. The Peabody Essex is on that short list.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Gem in Andover: The Addison Gallery of American Art

On a recent trip to Andover, MA to visit its historical society I also visited the Addison Gallery. This was an unexpected surprise, for it has some current memorable exhibitions, and its collection, which is largely in storage, rivals that of some larger institutions in its quality and quantity of representational works from the eighteenth century through the present. In fact, I anticipate the planned expansion in the coming years and their goal of making more of this collection available for viewing to both the public and the students they serve in their extensive educational outreach.

Until that happens, photographer Dawoud Bey's Class Pictures provides access to the ideas, experiences, and aspirations of American teenagers through large format portraits accompanied by a printed monologue. As part of the Phillips Academy, a preparatory school, it is appropriate that the art of its Gallery has a strong connection with one of its main audiences, school kids. That is not to say that this particular exhibit, or any of the others, will not be a treat for any age. Some of the kids depicted by Dawoud Bey express some saddening realities of being a teenager in America today, for here is neither statistic or thirty second blurb; these are thoughtful narratives that serve as self portraits to accompany this artist's portraits.

A digital C-print of Kevin, who wears a zippered sweatshirt with the letters F-C-U-K emblazoned on it and self styled baseball cap, offers up his own seemingly parent-less life as an example of what has become the norm rather than the exception for many teenagers in America; he sees it as a mixed blessing in which he has "learned to value independence, hard work, and maturity, yet he has been "cursed" too by lost youth and the "burdens" he must carry alone. These are not just urban youth depicted; there are representations from public and private schools alike, including Phillip's Academy.

At the same time that the MFA and Ipswich's own Historical Society are exhibiting work by Arthur Wesley Dow, the Addison's Ipswich Days: Arthur Wesley Dow and His Hometown is being offered. I was especially impressed with the photographs in the exhibit on display, for they include the rare occasion of seeing cyanotypes, a 19th century medium which required a special camera to deliver the strictly blue images. These monotone images exude an otherworldliness in their depiction of Ipwich, Massachusetts; moreover, they mimic Dow's own preferred medium of wood block prints that are also a part of this show. The influence of Japanese print on Dow is undeniable but his use of both a similar technique and color palette for scenery unique to his hometown experience make these something pleasingly unique, and something that exemplifies an American art tradition of adopting the traditions of other cultures for the sake of depicting our uniquely American landscape.

The Revolving Museum in Downtown Lowell, MA

I visited The Revolving Museum recently; it's worth a look. Situated in the downtown and next to a great vegetarian-granola type cafe where I got some good pomegranate elixir for the ride home. "The Electrifying: The Art of Light and Illumination" is the current feature. It is an interesting exhibit of light boxes in all shapes and sizes, but far more interesting is the museum space itself. This reclaimed 19th century brick commercial building is loaded with interesting details created by a local art community. There are all these Kurt Schwitters-type wood constructions inside that have been made from reclaimed building materials. I was especially taken with the kitchen facilities where large Matzo crackers, wheat thins, cheerios and the like have been adhered to the wall with ceramic adhesive; they were then coated with something like shellac or varnish. The effect is unique, but I couldn't help thinking that there must be roaches galore at night feeding on this ( in addition to furry pests). There is an art supply shop attached as well as an outdoor sculpture garden. Any one have any further insights into this place? Are there any other small museums worth a look at?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Visiting a Museum Website: The Decordova Museum and Sculpture Park

url address: http://www.decordova.org/

One issue included in any heuristic evaluation of a museum’s website design is assessing whether there was an intention for it to serve as an extension of the museum’s collections with links to educational resources, information about programs, upcoming exhibitions, activities, and the like or whether it serves as a separate and independent entity altogether. As a separate entity the museum website might offer a virtual museum experience that accentuates or supplements a parent actual museum. For my own purposes I often seek museum websites that provide further text and photos to and of those art works or artifacts that I have experienced in an actual museum, and the rare occasion seems to be websites that provide me with a comprehensive collections database. This satisfies my curiosity about works that I may have failed to learn the title of, or the artists responsible for them, after a visit to the real museum.

The DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park was one such website that satisfied my personal need for a collections database, a digital catalog of its works on display and some further insights into the mediums and the creative processes responsible for them, especially those works displayed outdoors. I saw much at my recent visit to the real museum, but there was lots of stuff I missed. A visit to its website provided a comprehensive catalog, replete with digital photos, of the DeCordova’s outdoor sculpture exhibits.

It was this that taunted me into committing to a future visit, both actual and virtual, to rectify the deficits of my recent visit to the actual. Here, online, I was able to savor more details about the real experience of the late Nam June Paik’s Requiem to the 20th Century, 1997, among others. I learned that the spray painted Chrysler Air Stream car, central to this work, was from 1936 and not 1938 as I had thought, given the ever elusive, onsite, ground level information plaques and my distracting three-year-old’s unannounced flights to nearby sculptures like Paul Matisse’s The Musical Fence, an interactive hit with kids.

Yes, these trivial details are important to me, the visitor. I was also able to learn that the Paik piece includes an audio of Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor and that the television screens that Paik replaced the interior view of the Chrysler with include videos of imagery indicative of the consumption, technology, and mass-culture born of the last century, if they had been functioning. It is at this time that I thought how appropriate it would have been to include a clip from those videos or even an audio that included a few bars from Mozart’s Requiem via streaming video or a podcast, since I was denied that on the actual visit.

The website is devoid of both sound and video; something that I increasingly anticipate, since the technology is not brand new. Here, too, in a photo on the website, was one of my favorite compositions, Ronald Gonzalez’s Cones, 2006, a construction of steel armature and organic matter depicting a fantastical grouping of pine cone beings. Knowledge of this artist and the title of this work only became known to me through the website, a most important design consideration, for it is integral that you know what your audience requires of your site. Truly, Cones’ assembly in a grove of century old pine trees that enveloped it and cast it in daytime darkness put to rest for me why a museum website can never replace the three-dimensional experience of the actual; there is just so much more to be had in an actual museum experience. Beyond its offering of sculptures, DeCordova’s Park provided additional aesthetic experiences, and one of the most memorable experiences was entering a dark enclosure provided naturally by the canopy of some centuries old tree by my son and I. For this alone I would return to this Sculpture Park.

As the site of New England’s only permanent public sculpture park with a majority of works on loan, the actual DeCordova temporarily satiated my love of outdoor sculpture display. Visiting DeCordova’s website afterwards served the purpose of further enriching that experience, through its designers’ thorough attention to not only its collections database, but archival materials of the museum’s past events, exhibitions, and insights into their education programs. The website immediately draws a visitor’s attention with its use of a moving and changing banner head that flashes the latest and upcoming attractions as well as the museum’s newest arrivals and recent "Gifts" of art by donors. Through this splash screen, there is not only a linear movement from the left to the right of text and imagery but a fading effect of that information once it reaches the right side of the page when another offering, in this sequence of four, replaces the former through gradual superimposition. This kinesthetic display makes use of a color palette of carmine red, cobalt blue, and photo gray, and these, superimposed on a home page of shades of gray, succeed at enlivening a website whose appearance would be otherwise commonplace.

The menu of the homepage is located vertically at the right, and the offerings begin with "Exhibitions." An important aspect of Decordova’s current manifestation, for the museum has evolved considerably since its opening in 1950, is its emphasis, not only "on modern and contemporary art, " but on art work created in New England. Since almost all the works in the Sculpture Park originate geographically from this region, it seems logical that such a focus to the collection would not only be documented early in the website but emphasized; for example, their mission statement might be provided stating this fact. It doesn’t. In fact, its dedication to exhibiting "regional contemporary art" is only stated in one of the last menu clicks labeled "About DeCordova."

This website exemplifies a user-centered design; navigation throughout the website is effortless and immediate in its usability. With a menu click to "Tours and Education," the museum reiterates its commitment to and clear focus on providing art education through not only "school visits, outreach," and "family programs." It is first indicated through an invocation at the right side of the homepage to "Registrar Now" through a link to course offerings in the DeCordova’s onsite Museum School.

The website provides the museum’s education offerings in art media under the guidance of artists and art education professionals through a menu click. There are programs for both teachers and the interested that provide hands-on experience in everything from jewelry design, book arts, ceramics, painting, and print making, among other mediums. Well constructed web pages essentially provide the syllabus to these courses with attention to policies and other pertinent information, as well as easy registration through an Adobe Acrobat Reader plug-in. A calender of events, with easy clicks to further details of events and complimentary merchandising, is also included.

One of the more valuable resources provided for educators is access to both enrichment and curriculum development in conjunction with its educational outreach. As mentioned in the paper "Expanding Art Museums into Humanities Classrooms: Research on Online Curricula for Cross-Disciplinary Study" teachers are drawn to sites that provide "tools for the classroom," and succeeding at this will ensure regular use instead of "one-time inspiration" by this target audience. A large proportion of today’s teachers seek out websites to assist them with their lesson development, and among the most popular sites with teachers are those that provide complete lesson plans that make connections between state standards in a subject area and a museum’s collections, and this website provides links to lesson plans for grades 6-8 (DiSalvo, 2007).

These resources could be improved upon and added to, for there are a limited number that have not been added to in some time. The DeCordova has taken its cue from such demands to increase its "impact" on an Internet community it serves in other ways though, including an attention to cross-curricular concerns in outreach exhibits like "Portable Gallery on the Go," which can be accessed by clicking "Tours and Education." Its choice of themes for this tool includes titles like "Puzzles and Daydreams: Art Works for Thinking" and "Harold "Doc" Edgerton: The Inventor as Artist," among others.

Another element of a museum’s website that I often anticipate is its attention to archiving past files; often these are ignored in web design. This undoubtedly has much to do with the fact that web design is evolving and that frequent redesigns necessitate cutting costs that include reconfiguring files from a past site as one of our course readings suggests. But a lot of stuff has been lost as a result— a whole new era of communications (Hamma, 2004).

One of my recent experiences with seeking such archival information online from a museum website pertained to an outdoor re-enactment of a P.T. Barnum "humbug," the nineteenth century discovery of the Cardiff Giant in Upstate New York" which had been featured outdoors in situ at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, NY some ten years ago. The giant-size stone in human-form had laid in a hand dug hole canopied by a reproduction period circus tent as it had once been discovered and publically displayed some one-hundred and fifty years ago. I had made mention of the situation in a paper I was writing, but I needed more information.

The museum had not archived the information I sought online, that had formerly been accessible through their website, and, for that matter, all records of this transient exhibit seemingly ceased to exist. A phone call to the museum proved just as disappointing. Archiving such information seems of great importance to a museum website that seeks to educate its audience as well as cajole scholarly research. The Decordova seems to understand this as evidenced by a link, at the top right of the homepage adjacent to the museum’s name, to archival materials about past exhibitions dating back, sometimes, ten years.

In summary, as a medium size art museum DeCordova offers much to their website visitors. Its attention to educational materials as well as information about works loaned to them and in their permanent collection is exceptional. The museum website in many ways distinguishes itself among other museums of similar size with its attention to archival materials and an offering to educators of lesson plans and learning materials related to their collection.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Whose Drips and Splatters? Pollock Matters Exhibit at the McMullen Museum of Art

On display in a subterranean corner of Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art are paintings from a recently discovered cache of art works found in a storage locker; they are the focus of a current exhibition entitled Pollock Matters. Controversy over the possibility of their attribution to Jackson Pollock has necessitated the seemingly unlikely pairing of art historians and scientists from the disciplines of both analytical chemistry and theoretical physics on a grand scale in an attempt to use all the resources available to make the most conclusive determination of their provenance. Their scientific analyses could be likened to some TV CSI drama if we were to not only pay heed to recent press coverage but consider the predominant focus of this exhibition’s own catalogue. Scientists have both sought to profile the individual or individuals responsible for these works as well as identify the creative methodology responsible for them.

The investigation of these works, now known as the "Matter paintings," has included the identification and examination of a fingerprint extant as well as the discovery of a matching one found on art materials at Jackson Pollock’s own Southampton, Long Island studio. These findings were the impetus for subsequent analyses and the comparison of paint samples found at the studio with one taken from one of the paintings. Aiding in this particular investigation has been state-of-the-art forensic technology like Fourier transform infrared and Raman spectrometry. Scientists like Richard Newman and Michele Derrick, from the MFA’s own Scientific Research Lab, have focused on the examination of inorganic paint pigments in order to date these paintings contemporaneous to Pollock. Ultimately, they have sought evidence to prove or disprove whether these paintings were indeed created as and when the labeled brown paper wrapper they were reputedly found in would lead us to believe. It was that brown paper wrapper, which includes the inscription "Pollock (1946-49)" and "32 Jackson experimental Works (gift +purchase)," that necessitated, perhaps almost immediately, a determination of whether the paintings contained within are the work of the iconic Abstract Expressionist or not.

Disputes over provenance are not uncommon, and works by long dead artists continue to be discovered. Other Pollocks have come to light in recent years and are still likely to be discovered. And one might think that Alex Matters, the discoverer of these disputed paintings and the son of the late Henry and Mercedes Matter, friends of artists Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, and artists in their own right, would be the likely bearer of some previously undocumented, authentic paintings by Pollock. But it is these paintings’ seemingly unorthodox appearance and their definition as "experimental" that have brought their provenance into question by the art community at large. Foremost among the questions raised is " why hadn’t they come to light earlier, given that the elder Matters, had not only contributed to the official documentation of Pollock’s late and most iconic work during their own lifetimes. Moreover, there is strong evidence that they would have taken advantage of an opportunity to benefit financially from the considerable market value of such works had they been known to exist and been genuine.

Other recent Pollock discoveries have more irrefutably bore the mark of the artist. While the small format of the majority of the Matter paintings defies the popular conception that Pollock exclusively painted large canvases, and many of his best known drip paintings seemingly support that, this was one of the first popular misconceptions about the Matter paintings. Although labeled "experimental," some argue that their small format would not have allowed Pollock’s exceedingly kinesthetic style of painting to evolve, but rather it would have resulted in constraints that the artist reputedly sought to avoid in the adoption of his free flowing method of creation. Size is the focus of Claude Cernuschi and Andrzej Herczynski’s own study, which resulted in the essay "Cutting Pollock Down to Size: Boundaries of the Poured Technique." The essay poignantly begins with a quote from Pollock himself: "‘I enjoy working big and—whenever I have the chance, I do it whether it’s practical or not...I’m just more at ease in a big area than I am on something 2x2; I feel more at home in a big era." Their study of the Pollock oeuvre seems to contradict the artist himself. Although Pollock may have idealized such circumstances for the creative process his output only includes twenty five percent of large proportion, and many fall within a range of 3x3 feet, close to the size of the Matter paintings.

In addition, many have argued that the materials used in these works, revealed through chemical analyses to include "gouache," multiple types of paint mediums, and additives for the purposes of a desired fluidity, are decidedly uncharacteristic of the artist’s choices. Pollock is known to have purposely sought to maximize the rheological, flexible or elastic, behavior of his chosen paint medium, for this allowed him to achieve his signature, rhythmical, paint applications. There is significant documentation bearing witness to Pollock’s own knowledge of paint mixing and how to achieve the desired effect of greater elasticity. Through a procedure whereby his stick or dry brush never actually touched a painting’s support, he used the effects of gravity to drip and splash paint. He used the paint’s, natural or affected, fluidity to realize patterns of interweaving threads on the un-stretched canvas that he characteristically laid horizontally on the floor. These details of Pollock’s creative process are given visual prominence in Pollock Matters with two large-as- life photos of the artist at work in his Southampton studio. These add to any one of the many possible narratives that the visitor can construct from the offerings of this exhibition.

"Untitled no.9," among the Matter paintings, has revealed through analysis an "acrylic emulsion" that would support the idea that, like Pollock, whoever produced these paintings purposely mixed paints for reasons of elasticity. Analysis has also revealed a "plasticizer" in the purple-red pigment found on the drip paintings on paper in the exhibition, which could support attribution to Pollock given both the stylistic similarities to his work and his propensity for mixing paints. But even with state-of-the-art analysis at the forefront of this investigation, scientists repeatedly, as in the case of the aforementioned identified "plasticizer," were unable to provide an identification of that additive, or, ultimately, an irrefutable conclusion about many of the paints and materials examined. These, simply, may never be forthcoming because of the incomplete record of paints and other materials manufactured and used in the creation of art at any time.

One of the most potentially revealing sources of physical evidence in determining some of the unanswered questions in this investigation is the floor in Pollock’s studio that the artist once painted his un-stretched canvases directly on, according to Nicholas Eastaugh and Bhavini Gorsia’s "Preliminary Study"(143). This floor includes not only outlines of paintings attributable but a significant record of paints used by the artist. Scientists also believe that this paint may be contaminated, given that tourists currently tread on it. Scientists offer conjecture about what evidence may reveal, but the fear that significant contamination to this potential information source makes the discussion of the future discovery of any eventual conclusive evidence from specifically this source seemingly moot.

The discovery of a "latent impression" fingerprint on the recto of the painting "Untitled no.1" and matched with a fingerprint found on a paint can extant at Pollock’s studio has succeeded in confounding the situation even more. Since there is no known documentation of Pollock’s fingerprints, forensic verification relies solely on the provenance of those paint cans found decades after Pollock’s death in a studio subsequently used by his wife Lee Krasner. An inability to make a conclusive connection between Pollock and the paint cans casts doubt on the owner of those fingerprints; subsequently, these paint cans have been the focus of an extensive analysis of their contents which have been compared with paint samples from the Matter paintings.

The most conclusive and damning evidence against sole attribution of the Matter paintings to Jackson Pollock came from an analysis of samples from the paint cans and from the paintings themselves. Paints contemporaneous to Pollock were seemingly only found to exist below layers of more recent paint applications on some of the Matter paintings. This suggests that Pollock may have made some initial contribution that was subsequently added to by additional "campaigns" of paint in imitation of him by others in subsequent years. Findings also place considerable doubt on the paint cans as Pollock’s own because they held no remnants of "an acrylic resin" that has been proven to be one of the building blocks of Pollock’s drip painting methodology. Given these findings, we have to ask why should it be believed that Pollock himself ever used these cans, or that the fingerprint on them is his? The absence of Magna paint amongst these paint cans is also a point of contention, for it has also been established that Magna was a key ingredient to "all the late Pollocks" (149).

The significant cracking that characterizes the physical state of many of the Matter paintings has been attributed to multiple "campaigns" of paint application. These multiple layers of paint give credence to a theory that the substrate may include initial campaigns by Pollock with undocumented early examples of paint not yet patented or even available in American markets as well as subsequent campaigns of paint by an unknown artist or artists over the period of years. It is also plausible that such pigments, in addition to the Swiss-made "Robi paints" documented on the brown wrapping paper, that Henry Matter may have supplied for the artist’s use, were of either pre or post-Second World War era European manufacturing; therefore, allowing the possibility that their composition was neither patented nor documented in that time and place or known internationally.

Central to this analysis of paint was the determination of "terminal dates" for pigments used in the Matter paintings, which simply means the date before or after which the materials used in the paintings were not available. Any materials used that were identified as only existing after Pollock’s death date in 1956 "could not, ipso facto, have been used" by him (135). But, for argument’s sake, such desired termini could not be conclusively determined if one considers that some pigments may have been available to Pollock before their known patent date. Such concessions made by the authors of the scientific analyses of pigments further confound any conclusive determination of the provenance of these paintings. If we were to consider simply that the Matter paintings included titanium-coated mica pigment that documentation tells us only existed since the 1960s, or the presence of a shade of orange found in "Untitled no. 19" that contained two pigments of a paint class that only came on the market in 1971, or, finally, in the case of two of the Matter paintings, "Untitled no.17" and "Untitled no.19," the presence of a red pigment that wasn’t patented until 1983, we might totally abandon the idea of any attribution to Pollock. But what if these paints existed before their patent dates and simply weren’t documented?

Scientists have also sought to relate theoretical physics to an analysis of Pollock’s established brushwork in comparison with that exemplified in the Matter paintings. Specifically, a fractal analysis would focus on both the aforementioned drips and splashes of the artist’s work. Through microscopic studies of the painting’s surface the possibilities of Pollock’s own improvisational method of pouring and dripping paint and the "inherent fluid instabilities of his streams of paint" might allow the condition whereby the known factors of "chaos theory" may be present. These might be evidenced by particular geometrical patterns extant in the work. But this type of scientific analysis was also inconclusive, for only one of the Matter paintings presented the condition necessary for a fractal analysis. From the outset such an analysis could only "attempt to eliminate a work of art as genuine." More disappointingly such an analysis can not determine who was responsible for a work of art. That, according to Nicholas Eastaugh, in "Analyzing Jackson Pollock: Scientific Methods and the Study of the Matter Paintings," is "the job of the scholar" (133).

Confounding the possibility of a deception through imitation by someone is the inconsistent fact that these paintings were not produced with any thoughts of their survival for any length of
time, so why would someone have gone through all the trouble? Before their scientific analysis, some of the paintings were actually restored to the point of obstructing their verso making a complete examination of them difficult. Reinforcement was applied to the verso of some these presumably to reinforce their deteriorated state. Alex Matter has made the claim that there were works that disintegrated when he opened the aforementioned wrapping paper for the first time; hence, there was an immediate need for restoration. Photos documenting the warped state of some of the canvas board seems to support this decision, yet for some this decision has succeeded in further exasperating the suspicion that some type of fakery is at the heart of these paintings’ existence.

There are a number of other plausible scenarios regarding the origin of the Matter paintings suggested by the art, text, and material presented at Pollock Matters. The facts tell us that the Pollocks and the Matters were all artists in their own right and friends. The paintings were found among the belongings of Herbert Matter. They were packaged in a brown wrapping paper with an inscription and date verifiably written by the hand of Herbert Matter himself. The historical record tells us that Pollock’s career as a artist was less than stellar until his breakthrough drip paintings around the late 40s; in fact, Pollock was producing both semi-abstract paintings, that had characterized much of his career for a decade or more, and total abstractions, like Composition with Pouring II, as early as 1943. At the same time, and the McMullen provides examples of these for the purposes of comparison, Lee Krasner and the Mercedes Matters were experimenting with a similar fluidity of line in their respective mediums, as was Hans Hoffman, mentor to both Krasner and Mrs. Matter. Additionally, Herbert Matter, a photographer, had been experimenting with light pencils and long film exposures which resulted in squiggly white lines and multiple blurred poses of figures on exposed film, which are alarmingly like the "drip" paintings in their kinesthetic execution. It seems possible that all of these experiments and ideas were a popular topic of discussion among these friends. These ideas may have come together and been physically realized through some impromptu experimentation by Pollock and the others.

These disputed paintings may indeed be that missing link between Pollock’s earlier documented work and the studio paintings in his Southampton studio that brought him great recognition a short time later. I believe that because Pollock synthesized these ideas through repeated experimentation and executed a significant body of work he deserves the recognition he has received, but these other artists are part of a important narrative in art history. Their contributions to this specific moment should be mentioned too, and this scientific analysis that plays such a prominent role in Pollock Matters serves a novel function in that it presents a number of plausible narratives about the creative process of art; one of these might be that the Matter paintings are examples of that rarer occasion when collaboration included a communal execution of works as well.

Although this exhibition presents much scientific analyses, some of these studies remain decidedly inconclusive. The suggested inconsistencies in the termini of painting materials will succeed in maintaining the strong, initial intuition held by many that these painting are not the work of artist Jackson Pollock until some more conclusive evidence to the contrary comes to light. It is also likely that these findings will succeed at maintaining the initial mystery of these paintings for others who wish to perpetuate the notion that these paintings may not only be the work of Pollock but may collectively serve as a type of Rosetta stone for Abstract Expressionism, for such an outcome would mean that such art treasures still lay out there waiting to be discovered. Ultimately, this novel pairing of scientific analysis with art historical scholarship offers an exhibition experience that presents multiple narratives and invites the visitor to come up with their own conclusions.

Landau, Ellen G. And Claude Cernuschi, eds. Pollock Matters. Mc Mullen Museum of Art/Boston College, 2007.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Place To Take The Kids: The Peabody Essex Museum

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) came to my attention recently with a presentation by James Forrest, its Creative Director, in my Museums and New Media class. A survey of recent design projects for the museum’s state-of-the-art website, which included its collections database as well as representation of highlights from its past, present, and future exhibitions peaked my interest in visiting the real museum; in fact, I am among the first to dispel the fear that so many have about the increasing role of museum websites and their potential to overshadow the actual museum.

My response to PEM’s website was just the opposite, for I was anxious to soon experience the museum, its collections, and, at least, one of its numerous historic houses in three dimensions. Furthermore, although not a feature of PEM’s particular website, virtual tours of historic houses and museums themselves pale in comparison to the kinesthetic pleasures of being there and maneuvering through rooms and up and down stairways, and the like. After visiting web pages devoted to particularly PEM’s Yin Yu Tang, a two hundred year old Chinese merchant’s house and a touted highlight, I especially anticipated the real experience of walking through its wooden two-story structure and walled courtyard believing that its virtual representation promised an even better real experience.

My demands for a museum visit have changed in recent years with the addition of children to my family. Having joined an important demographic for museums, I am acutely aware of its particular needs and how they might best be served. PEM has embraced a mission that claims to be both "people-centered" and "dedicated to providing ...experiences to diverse audiences, " so I set out to see how true that is. What I found was that it provides extensive resources, programming, and facilities for particularly visitors with children.

Although many museums have redefined themselves as audience-centered in recent years and have made efforts to become more "child friendly" with increased programming and the development of interactive offerings, others have merely adopted the rhetoric and been slow to transform their physical plant in order to do so. PEM, with significant financial backing, has been among those to realize a mission that seeks to insure "compelling and meaningful experiences to diverse audiences."

PEM includes all the bells and whistles of a child friendly institution. Salem, Massachusetts, its home, is a year round tourist destination with much to offer, and it is only fair to recognize that PEM has benefitted immensely from the city’s strong infrastructure which includes good parking, handicap ramps, and functional sidewalks. Getting to and from the museum’s door is more hassle free than many urban museums. Reaching Salem by car from Boston and its nearby environs via Interstate 95, 128 North, and, finally, 114 East, was virtually painless on the weekdays at noon when I visited, and the signs directing you to the museum once you entered Salem seemed to be every fifty yards. The New Liberty Street parking garage is a stone’s throw away from the museum, and if, on the rare occasion, the four tiers of parking are full there is a municipal lot on nearby St. Peter Street.

If you are coming by the Newbury/Rockport train line from Boston, you would arrive at the Salem Station at one end of the city’s Pedestrian Mall; the other end of which, after a five-minute walk, is the museum. The No. 450 or No. 455 bus from Boston’s Haymarket Square, gets you to Salem, and you can reach the museum after a short walk. For the more adventurous, the Salem Ferry, a 50 minute catamaran ride, from Boston’s Central Wharf will bring you to the Blaney Street Wharf in Salem between June 15 and October 31. A taxi ride or walk is necessary to reach the museum from the wharf. Of course, for visitors with small children and strollers, driving and parking nearby is the least strenuous means of getting to the museum.

From the top tier of the Liberty Street garage a nearby elevator brings you to the ground level tourist shopping mall. Exiting to the outside street there is a short walk around the corner to the new glass and steel atrium of the museum’s entrance. The entrance, to this museum that has seemingly spared no expense in its recent architectural transformation, state-of-the-art website, interactive tools, exhibition development, and world class collection, among other things, is decidedly understated. Where are the bright banners and signs invoking visitors to come and see its wonders? They simply aren’t there. I can remember purposely not visiting this museum in the past because its nondescript entrance turned me off. In order to get to the entrance doors one passes through a sea of pedestrians and street entertainers that seemingly celebrate Halloween year round here.

I observed volunteers and staff eager to serve visitors at PEM. Making my way to the museum’s doors for my first visit a volunteer spotted me and rushed and opened the door for the stroller containing my son and daughter; how’s that for service? Entering for my second visit large groups of high school students were exiting which is indicative of the educational outreach underscored in PEM’s printed brochures. The admissions desk in the "Atrium Way" is attended by conscientious volunteers who, on my second visit, gave my family and I free admission once I offered up my student ID card and added that I was in Tufts’ museum studies program, which peaked this particular volunteer’s interest. I also added that Jim Forrest, their aforementioned Creative Director, had recently spoken to one of my classes, and that seemed to clinch the deal. Children under sixteen are always free, but I nevertheless saved a considerable sum. In addition to the free admission, which is regularly a steep thirteen dollars for adults, eleven for seniors, and nine dollars for students, this volunteer also served up two free tickets for the self-guided tour of the Yin Yu Tang house, which I had set my sights on, an additional eight dollar value. I had visited the museum two weeks before and only received the student discount, so this was simply my lucky day.

In addition to the visitor’s map one is handed, there is an abundance of free printed resources for maximizing one’s experience, and these are available in French and Spanish. "Viewpoints" offers visitors enrichment through textual thematic links to the collection. It also includes stories about some of PEM’s highlights. Given the fact that you can’t "do" the museum justice with just one visit, such a resource is a great introduction. After two visits of roughly two hours each, there are still areas of the museum that I have not thoroughly explored. Another resource, "Family Guide," offers a collaborative experience whereby parents and children are directed to "share their impressions" with each other and locating details of particular works in the museum. It also includes an introduction to reading labels for young children. Such resources are invaluable for engaging children and making them lifetime museum visitors. Following these prescribed tours or using PEM’s numerous printed gallery resources promises to further enhance the museum experience.

There are coat rooms off to the right of the Atrium Way, but security is amenable to you carrying your backpack or bag at your side. After you pass beyond the admissions and membership desks, the space opens up to reveal the full breadth of this new steel and glass Atrium which forms the nucleus of the newly expanded museum. All areas of the museum are accessed from here, including the museum’s award-winning café, with its comfortable seating of patio tables and chairs on its ground floor. There is also a "Garden Restaurant," which offers larger and more expensive fare off of the Maritime Art galleries to the right. Food selections at the Atrium Café include a lunch for two of gourmet sandwiches and soft drinks for under twenty dollars. The museum shops are located adjacent to this. The museum’s bookstore is worth the visit alone for it has a large selection of books and multimedia resources related to current and past exhibitions, including numerous museum catalogues that have been accessible all over the museum.

The tour of the Yin Yu Tang house is self guided and limited to thirty minutes. One enters the site through glass doors off the ground floor of the Atrium. Yin Yu Tang and its courtyard, which can be seen from every level of the glass Atrium, was disassembled and shipped from China. Security is attentive to visitors making their way into the courtyard of the house reminding them to watch their step. The paving stones of the path are loose and slippery, and I saw one visitor trip on them. This visitor was assured by a vigilant security guard that these loose stones will soon be remedied. There is no accommodation in this area for wheelchairs; navigating a wheelchair through the narrow spaces of the house itself would seemingly be impossible.
In my previous visit two weeks before, I was handed an "audio wand" for the self guided tour. The wand is a relatively old technology which I found physically awkward to handle in comparison to smaller mp3 units I have used in other museums. The wand is hard to juggle while keeping hold of a child, or if you have to carry other things. It took one hand for me to hold it and another to punch in the two-digit codes for each of Yin Yu Tang’s audio stations, which are designated by discreet, numbered, stone blocks on the ground. The wand has since been replaced with a smaller mp3 player,"audioguides," which allowed me to hold it and enter codes with one hand this second time round.

Although the Yu Yin Tang is self-guided, there are knowledgeable security guards that offer up anecdotal information about the house freely to visitors. There is no labeling or signage in this site; all information is officially imparted through the "audioguides." This is what makes the experience so unique, for it truly immerses the visitor in a different place and time. The museum has nine other historic houses situated in Salem, but these are experienced through more traditional guide led tours. Visitors expressed their appreciation to staff, and punctuated this with a professed love for this exhibit and the museum as a whole; in fact, I frequently overheard unsolicited praise for the museum by fellow visitors. Adjacent to the house, after exiting, is a theater that provides a comprehensive video narrative of the house’s origin, its construction, and the process by which it came to rest in Salem.

Additionally, there is seating in another room where laptops provide access to the museum’s web pages on Yin Yu Tang. Pertinent print resources are available too for visitors to sit and peruse. There is an inviting mahjong set-up for those inclined, and a plasma screen display of an exhibit of contemporary photographs of rural China, the house’s original location. Clearly, the museum invites the visitor to make a day of their visit and enjoy its offerings at their leisure; it occurred to me how antithetical this all is to early museum planning and practice which sought to usher visitors in and out of the museum speedily and systematically.

In another corner of the museum my son sat on the floor entirely absorbed in a set of reproduction Anchorstone blocks, once popular in 19th century Europe, an offering of one of the dozen or so activity boxes in PEM’s Art and Nature Center. This area alone attests to its commitment to educating and entertaining young visitors. The Center’s current focus is origami, and there are expert examples of folded paper animals and reptiles housed in vitrines interspersed among tables set up with interactive activities for children of all ages. For traditionalists, there are taxidermic birds and fish behind glass too. Origami lotus flowers hooked up to an air bellows, which can be pumped by foot, is popular with kids; the flowers consequently spin.

The Center has several art studios where adults and children alike can currently do origami by following step-by-step streaming video demonstrations offered up on PEM’s website. This exemplifies how this particular museum has maximized visitor use of its website. This particular activity seemed to attract enthusiastic parents and their school age children while others with pre-schoolers in tow gravitated to a nearby area of comfortable seating and shelved activity boxes filled with games, puppets, and toys thematically related to art and nature.

Elevators are roomy and provide access to all areas of the main museum. Couches and cozy sitting can be found in numerous corners of the museum, and these always include a choice of exhibition catalogues. These could and did provide unofficial places for nursing mothers as well as places to pause, "chat & relax," as PEM’s own brochures define their function. Bathrooms can be found on all floors except the third, and their commodious spaces and changing tables are a welcome feature to parents with small children. Water fountains were always located nearby.

Numerous touch screen kiosks provide visitors added experience through choices of relevant audio and video. One example mounted on a wall of the current Samuel McIntyre exhibition included an audio narrative and digitally reproduced primary documents about "a classical education" in 18th century America. In an exhibition of Southeast Asian art, a large plasma touch screen provided text, video, and audio on a variety of subjects related to this region, including, but not limited to, religions, music, and dance.

The museum was not faultless, for I felt that the collection’s safety had taken precedence over that of visitors in one instance. In the Native American and Oceanic Art collections lighting levels were seemingly lower than other areas of the museum. I attribute this to numerous exhibits of textiles which are extremely susceptible to deterioration by light. I had difficulty seeing in this particular area. Science tells us that it takes twice the amount of light for a forty year old to see what a twenty year old sees, so I could only guess the difficulty 60 and 80 years old had maneuvering in this area. Adding to my concern were vitrines with sharp and jutting edges unseen in other areas of PEM that one had to maneuver around in order to see what there was to see.

PEM serves as model of how a museum can, as its mission states, "create experiences" which bring the "wider world" to its audience. Its attention to making the museum more than just a place to house art and culture is exemplified by its attention to actively educating through continuously developing new and meaningful experiences using the highest quality programming, publications, and ground breaking technology available in addition to making their collections more accessible to larger audiences of all ages. There is room for improvement though. The wheelchair inaccessibility of exhibits like Yin Yu Tang comes to mind. The museum might bring an approximation of this one-of-a-kind experience through a virtual tour on request. Finally, the museum might consider using timers to bring about greater momentary illumination to its dimly lit exhibition spaces while still limiting deteriorating exposure to light.


Peabody Essex Museum, "Mission Statement," http://www.pma.org/ (Accessed October 31, 2007).