Posted on July 7th, 2016 by Rachel
Every week we’re asking our summer interns to share some thoughts and responses to various experiences and readings. This week we asked them to read and respond to one of two readings, “If You Can’t See It Don’t Say It: A New Approach to Interpretive Writing” and “The Art of Failure.”
If You Can’t See It Don’t Say It: A New Approach to Interpretive Writing by Kris Wetterlund
(Read it yourself here.)
Wellcome Library, London.
No More “That”
“If you Can’t See It Don’t Say It” by Kris Wetterlund talks about how to look at art and create descriptive museum labels that incorporates the story of the art based off what is present in it. The writing described in the article is a much different style than I am used to writing. Throughout my college career I wrote art exhibit entries for classes, modeled off short articles highlighting a specific piece of art. In these I would describe what I saw, but the main writing would be the context of the work; where it came from, how it was made, and how it fits into a historical or prehistorical context. For museum labels, according to Wetterlund, the context should be condensed or left out so that the label can focus on describing what the viewer is actually looking at.
Wetterlund also offers some advice that I can see being valuable in writing outside of the museum setting, such as using the active rather than the passive voice. I have heard this advice many times but very few teachers or writers have offered useful suggestions besides looking at verbs and making sure the subject is the one doing the action. In a tip box on page 20 of the article suggests removing “that” and “then” where possible. Just in typing this blog, I see the impact such a simple edit makes.
The article contradicts itself in the final section about storytelling. The first thing the author says is to not include information that the viewer can’t see when writing labels, and then they include a label for a “Bible Quilt” by Harriet Powers that does not tell us anything about the images actually on the quilt, but instead about how the quilt was made and how the museum got it. This change in approach to museum labels was not well explained in the article. A reason for the different style of label could perhaps be the type of museum the piece is displayed in. The first example of a museum label seen in the article is for Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin’s “The Attributes of the Arts and the Rewards Which Are Accorded Them,” on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Being an art museum where people are there to view the art, it would make sense that the label should focus on what the viewer can see. The “Bible Quilt” is on display at the National Museum of American History where the focus would be on the stories of the objects and how they are relevant to American history, more so than the artistic techniques employed.
For the most part the article is easy to understand and breaks down what the author feels are the most important things to consider when doing interpretive writing in a museum setting.
History Might Need More
In If You Can’t See It, Don’t Say It, Kris Wetterlund offers advice on how museum professionals can engage with their visitors more efficiently through the writing on labels. Her central point, as the title says, is that you should only address visible elements of an object in its label. Its provenance, importance to an artistic movement, and place in art theory are all unimportant distractions for a reader who just wants to figure out, concretely, what they are looking at. This is generally good advice–simplicity and focus should always be objectives of museum labels–but Wetterlund’s main emphasis is art museums, and her recommendations become problematic when you attempt to apply them to history museums.
The goals of art museums and history museums are fundamentally different. In a history museum, every object in an exhibit works together to create an interpretive whole, and the labels must explain, implicitly or explicitly, why the object in the case is a part of the story the museum is telling. In other terms, the importance of a central story to history exhibits necessitates more abstract interpretation of its artifacts.
Another unique feature of history museums is their focus on humanity. Seemingly mundane objects can be very important to these museums because they signify parts of the human experience. In these cases, labels that just address what the visitor can see would do the objects a disservice. People using those objects everyday imbues them with significance, and that is not evident on first glance.
Kris Wetterlund’s suggestions in If You Can’t See It, Don’t Say It are generally useful but should be implemented with caution in history museums.
A Focus on the Concrete
I thought the article, “If You Can’t See It Don’t Say It: A new Approach to Interpretive Writing” by Kris Wetterlund, contained interesting insights that could be applied to many situations. It focused on how to write engaging art exhibit labels, but also gave advice for writing in general. What I appreciated most was that the article spoke in the same tone that they were encouraging others to write in. I’ve read multiple articles promoting, for example, more accessible resources for under-educated populations, which were written in a niche, academic words, so it didn’t seem like the authors really believed in what they were writing. With this article, I believed it.
One of my favorite pieces of advice was to write concrete rather than abstract ideas. It gave a useful suggestion for checking that it’s concrete by asking, “Why?” after writing something. It providing a great example using a label that first says, “Objects in the painting switch in and out of perspective.” After asking, “Why?” a better label would say, “He wasn’t interested in how things looked, instead he tried to record the act of looking.” I was actually surprised by how much more I understood the artist and art based on the second label. I also liked the advice to “write the way you talk.” It reminded me of a method I use to help people figure out how to write something down clearly, by just asking, “What you are really trying to say or get across?” Usually people are suddenly able to summarize it in one sentence! However, I disagreed with the advice that numbers and statistics turn people away because they’re too impersonal. I think a combination works best. While hearings emotional appeals like, “New mother murdered!” make you feel something, numbers can help really help demonstrate a systemic tragedy rather than a personal misfortunes. I agree that they shouldn’t necessary be the main focus, but if there’s already a picture depicting the event, especially if it’s graphic, then it’s already emotionally grabbing enough and then the caption can be more filled with statistics. Overall, however, I’m happy to say that this article will make me think differently about labels in art museums. There’s always more going on behind the scenes than you think!
Who Are Museums For?: The Accessibility of Museum Labels
While museums may have once been private collections of the very wealthy, never meant to be seen by the working class or peoples of various identities, museums today are widely public. Though sometimes geared toward certain communities or demographics, museums are meant to be accessible to everyone, sometimes even forgoing a cost of admission. So why then are some museums so gosh darn boring? And how is it that a place that supposedly welcomes all people can, upon visiting, still feel exclusive?
After reading Krist Wetterlund’s guide “If You Can’t See It Don’t Say It: A New Approach to Interpretive Writing” I think one of the main culprits are the museum labels, or the captions that accompany objects and paintings. Going to art museums, for example, can sometimes feel like being a kid in school and hanging out with one of the older kids, who tries to make you feel dumb by talking about things you haven’t even learned yet. Museums should give everyone an equal footing to learn about what they’re displaying, whether that’s how to interpret a painting, understanding the historical context behind an object, or questioning what deserves to be in a museum at all. I appreciate Wetterlund’s guide, which recommends labels that are simple, active instead of passive, and that focus on the information that people are really curious to learn about. She gives an example with a Cezanne painting. Bad label: “Paul Cezanne was influential in the development of the Cubist movement.” Good label: “He wasn’t interested in how things looked, instead he tried to record the act of looking.”
Labels are there to help the visitor interpret what they’re seeing. They should tell a story that helps us connect to the museum and remember what we’ve learned, rather than deliver a lecture that goes above our heads and alienates us from “high art” or “classical antiquity.” If museums are truly for everybody, then labels should be for everybody, too.
The Art of Failure: The Importance of Risk and Experimentation, NEA Arts, No. 4, 2014
(Read it yourself here.)
Every Person Fails in their Own Way
When I read articles like the ones contained in this 2014 issue of NEA Arts, “The Art of Failure”, my first reaction is always to consider how the lessons within apply to my own life. That’s natural, I feel—I’m only twenty-one years old, still trying to figure out my future. And as helpful as that can be, for this issue it’s almost a useless exercise. Each of these articles—written by artists who are outstanding in their field—is really the story of one person learning about failure by experiencing their own specific failures. Each story then boils down to two general lessons: you have to ignore the fear of failure to take risks, and you have to work hard. And who am I to say that isn’t the recipe? But I think that the truly crucial lesson that none of them —Toni Morrison, Geoff Nuttall, Perry Chen, Carlos Murrillo, Sarah Kaufman, Gene Luan Yang, or Janai Brugger—come out and say is that you have to keep saying “yes”: “yes, I want to try this”, or “yes, this is what I want from my life”, or even, “yes, this is possible”. Each made the decision to stick with it, every time they felt knocked down or unsuccessful.
In my experience, adults like to give people my age (not adults, no matter what the law says) articles like this to read, to inspire us or to teach us. In particular for me, this issue didn’t change my life. They’re very good articles, and I think that they have valuable lessons inside; but I think they are lessons you have to learn yourself. The only way to learn to take risks and overcome a fear of failure is to do whatever it is that could fail—like Toni Morrison or Geoff Nuttall, or any successful artist. You can’t learn these lessons from a magazine; you have to keep just saying yes to what you want in your own life.
The Best Advice
I feel like, as someone who is reaching the end of her college career (potentially the end of my academic career as well), the horror of failing without a structured schedule year after year is terrifying. There are a lot more loose ends that need to be taken care of now that were never a problem previously. Reading about all of these famous people, who started off as regular people practicing a craft, who have failed on their way to stardom was inspiring in the sense that it is something that needs to said and heard.
A lot of people only see the end result, but as Kickstarter co-founder Perry Chen suggested “it’s also about the practice and the journey to get there” (Chen 9). I think a lot of people in my position, who fear the unknown of what the future holds only see shallow success stories. When you are struggling to figure life out no one tell about the uphill battles you will have to face are how truly difficult it is to make it anywhere. However, soprano singer Janai Brugger said what I found most inspiring in the The Art of Failure. She said, “the best advice I received as a young singer is that you have to follow your own path and not try to be on anybody else’s ” (Brugger 21). That is something I have to frequently tell myself, because it is difficult not to compare myself to people my own age that I view as already ahead of me. Still, there is no reason to compare yourself to anyone else, because everyone has a different path they are supposed to take, some take longer than others, but eventually we all get to where we need to be.
What is Success?
Reading several artist’s statements on the importance of failure in the creative process got me thinking: if failure is useful to our future success, is it really failure? And moreover, how do we know when we have really succeeded?
It seems that writers, actors, scientists, and other scions of our society contend that failure is not an endpoint, but rather a stepping stone; a prototype. Not an entity in itself, but just a part of the creative process, like the rejection of an unsupported hypothesis in the scientific process. But what then, is success? In the scientific process, there is no endpoint, no finished product, only an incremental climb up a ladder of truth, which gets us closer and closer to the answer of an unknown question. So can there be success in anything else? Sure, we may have success in the sense that we are financially secure, publicly lauded, and approved of by society, but outside the parameters of the social system, is success a reality? Is it not too just a stepping stone to further and further success, being indistinct from failure except for the response of outsiders? Does a person deemed successful halt their work, and simply bask in their achievement the rest of their life? Can such a thing be called success? I do not presume to know the answers to these questions, but perhaps questions are better; they prolong the process of inquiry and sharpen our wits, and they keep us trying. And isn’t that what learning from failure is about anyway?
A Means to Grow
The Art of Failure discusses the hidden nuances associated with a lack of success. Failure is typically seen as the worst-case scenario of an endeavor. The writers discuss failure and the positives that come with it, as well as what conventional wisdom has typically taught people overt time
Toni Morrison directly compares the presence of failure between science and art.. In science, failure has it’s inherent benefits in regards to finding a solution. This concept is best exemplified by Thomas Edison who after failing 10,000 times to create a lightbulb stated “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.
However, Morrison believes that failure in art is far more stigmatized. A failed artist often discarded and stigmatized. Rather than failure being seen an infinite dark hole, it should be seen as a step closer to success. Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized educator, shares a similar view. He suggests that “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with any anything original”. These sentiments from Edison, Robinson and Morrison suggest that the fear of failure is strong enough to deter confidence in one’s own creativity.
As president of Baltimore BBYO, a teen-led youth group, I worked my adviser, Mitch Liebeskind, who had a love for risk-taking and an appreciation for failure as a means to grow. I can recall several occasions where I performed inadequately, in either public speaking or event planning, and felt immediately downcast about the outcome. Mitch’s response was often to look at what went wrong, why it went wrong and quickly move on to the next task. A melancholy response to failure would not change what happened, much less improve future events. Mitch insisted on learning from mistakes, seeing the positive in a situation, no matter how small, and moving forward. Although it has been years since Mitch and I worked on a project together, these three simple concepts are still a part of my leadership today.
Not one to set small goals, but happy to learn from mistakes Mitch encouraged me to aim big, and fail bigger. “Fail fantastic” was a phrase commonly heard during brainstorming sessions. Naturally, Mitch never encouraged me to perform poorly, but he insisted that I was to fail “It better be a good show”. He did insist that I step far out of my comfort zone as in order to mature and grow, personally and professionally.
Melissa (my co-president), Mitch, and Me
An Unlikely Motivator: Facing Failure
The NEA Grant Foundations magazine issue No.4 titled The Art of Failure is a compilation of articles dealing from famous artists responding to their take on facing failure.
It begins with Toni Morrison a prominent African-American author who worked for the NEA for a time. Toni Morrison sees the creative process as a procedure, it is all information and if something doesn’t work or gives the wrong impression it can be corrected because half the process is editing. I found this intriguing as an artist; art is something I have always personally felt was free flowing and tangible, and the end product ends up being orderly and formed. The chaos of the process creates a loose model of what the final product is to be, because criticism, editing and feedback are really what end up polishing and fully forming the ‘end’ product. As Tony Morrison points out there are revisions she wanted to pursue years after her books were published. I agree with this because in the end art is not something that has a final product that cannot in some way be improved, the fun and challenge of art is finding a good stopping point where you aren’t overdoing it or leaving something ‘half-baked’. Perry Chen’s approach of putting out work, getting the feedback and developing gradual confidence is appealing to me as he works in fields closely related to my own. I found it interesting and problematic when he mentions just “pushing the button” and putting your work out there. It immediately subjects your work to feedback which is good, but at the same time if it is left there in that state it is essentially not a failure but useless unless it immediately clicks into what it is supposed to do/impact. So if that risk is taken it is important to respond to that feedback.
If someone was to produce work that got no negative feedback constantly they would not grow as an artist, or as a person. Failure is inspiration in itself; sometimes failure realigns the track when someone feels derailed in concept or execution. Sometimes failure is necessary for motivating people to pursue a task or project, acting as fuel for a stubborn drive to get an idea in the world. I work primarily with media arts, which ostensibly looks incredibly orderly and deliberate. In reality it is a mass of constantly changing variables that all rely on feedback, failure and praise. Praise is a nice immediate feeling but when you are receiving a lot of it half way through your work process there is only so much it can do to help compared to someone letting you know what looks better, what could be changed. It is more valuable towards the end of the work process where it is expected and strived for.
~O. Cade Simon
A Part of Life
This week I read the NEA Arts articles about failure. It explores the concept of failure versus success in the artistic world. My favorite article was an interview with Nobel Prize winning author, Toni Morrison. She encourages writers to understand themselves and let go of something when it is just not working. Morrison, along with the rest of the artists interviewed, perceives failure as a learning tool instead of an issue.
Failure, whether personal or institutional, is a part of life. This positive outlook does not make the pain of failure fade from existence, but it does lessen the blow. What many tend to forget is that failure—something unsuccessful— is often the more common result. These unsuccessful attempts are just learning experiences that provide information for future tries. They show what does not work so that we can try another way that could succeed. Perseverance and allowing oneself to fail will bring the greatest rewards.
Posted on June 22nd, 2016 by Rachel
I thought I’d take some time to share some of the visitor feedback we’ve received at the Museum whether on post-it notes in the Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America exhibit, comment books in the Voices of Lombard Street exhibit or expressed to me at the front desk.
The comment board
At the end of the “Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America” exhibit, visitors have the opportunity to share their thoughts and feedback by leaving post-it notes on a board. Here is a selection of some of the comments we’ve received:
“I love the structure and the interactive exhibits!”
“Exhibit called my attention to things about which I’d previously been unaware”
“Varied, informative, entertaining – Wow!!”
“Very informative exhibit that invites visitors to explore the Jewish medical experience and to also see themselves within the context of its evolving history. Thanks!”
“So fun! I feel like I have gone back in time!”
I suspect that the person who wrote the last comment may have been referring to features such as the recreation of a corner drugstore.
We also had a few comments from graduates from the Sinai Hospital School of Nursing saying that they had a wonderful experience and that the exhibit brought back many memories.
As I was walking through the Voices of Lombard Street exhibit, I noticed that our visitors had completely filled out the comment book at the end of the exhibit. It was a pleasure reading through it the book and hearing about visitor’s connections to our neighborhood. One visitor thanked us for reviving memories of his youth. Several others remarked how the exhibit reminded them of how their immigrant grandparents grew up.
Another described coming down to Lombard Street with her father to get corned beef while also playing with the chickens in the wooden cages.
In addition to written feedback, I sometimes get people coming up to the front desk telling me stories of their connections to Jewish Baltimore or of their connection to our collections. A few days ago, I heard from a rabbi who went on the Lloyd Street Synagogue tour that his great grandfather, was the melamed, or teacher of the synagogue from the Bavarian village of Gaukoenigshoffen, where one of our Torah scrolls came from.
The scroll he was referring to was our Kleeman Torah which was rescued by Louis Kleeman during Kristallnacht in 1938 and then smuggled out of Germany in 1940.
This story had a tragic end because on March 24, 1942, the 40 year old Jewish community of Gaukoenigshoffen disappeared when the remaining 37 Jews were deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Despite the sometimes sad stories I hear, one of my favorite parts of my job is hearing how our exhibits and collections touch visitors and often reconnect them to a part of their past that they thought they had lost. I hope you will all continue to leave your feedback!
A blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.
Posted on June 17th, 2016 by Rachel
We were looking at a big wooden cabinet, partially shrouded by a thin sheet of protective foam. Even covered up, it was clearly an object of wonder: towering, but intricate; intricate, but functional. Not just a cabinet, it is also a replica of the Hutzler brother’s so-called Palace, formerly located at Lexington and Howard. The Hutzler Palace opened in 1888 as the first department store in Baltimore. A year later, David Hutzler commissioned C.F. Meislahn for the cabinet, which he gave to his wife Ella in honor of their 15th anniversary.
The cabinet, revealed! (JMM 1989.204.001)
Karen, the JMM’s curator, explained how Joanna, the collections manager, thought the cabinet was too overused to be considered for exhibition in the new core exhibit, which will replace Voices of Lombard Street in 2019. But looking back at previous exhibit catalogs, the cabinet hasn’t been used since the Enterprising Emporiums: The Jewish Department Stores of Downtown Baltimore of 2001. With the cabinet back on the table, Karen talked display.
“I really hate display cases,” she said, explaining the impracticality of building a case built specifically to hold one item: “You can never use them again.” But Karen took deeper issue with glass cases than just their too-specific dimensions. “As soon as you put an object in a case, or on a pedestal, there’s a disconnect.” Somehow, when even the most mundane objects are put into glass cases, they suddenly become “too good” for the visitor. If museums offer a chance to become intimate with history and its artifacts, glass cases tell the visitor, “You can look, but you can’t touch!” The intimacy is lost.
This is particularly relevant at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Having spent years with the museum’s collections and discussing them, Karen describes them as collections where the everyday is privileged. When she tours me and Alice, the other exhibitions intern, around the storage rooms, she pulls out a box of beautiful lacy parasols, owned by elite Jewish women; she points out tea boxes and a porcelain salt box, unboxes an embroidered matzah cover, and opens a dress bag to show us a glamorous white fur coat. We pass by golf trophies and a shelf devoted to charity boxes. Less than an arm length’s away, no glass between us, it’s easy for me to imagine tea boxes sitting on kitchen counters or organized neatly in a cupboard, or one of the golf trophies sitting on a fireplace mantle. Even the Hutzler cabinet becomes familiar when I see it in the background of a picture of the Hutzler’s dining room. The everyday-ness of the items makes imagining them as props in the story of someone’s life all the more simple. Connect them with a good story, and these items can really resonate with a person.
The cabinet (pictured far left) in use in the dining room of the Hutzler home on Eutaw Place. (JMM 1991.024.001a)
Towards the end of our mini-tour, Karen stopped us in front of a shelf where two elaborate silver torah crowns sat side by side. Each was multi-tiered like a wedding cake and decorated with silver flowers and bells, so I was a little surprised when Karen admitted, “I find them a little underwhelming.” But she used them to discuss the ongoing debates among Jewish museums across the country about what the role of the Jewish museum is, and what it is supposed to represent of the broadly defined Jewish experience (further spurred on by an article by Eric Rothstein earlier this year).
“These [religious items] used to be what people came to see,” Karen shared, speaking of Jewish museums of old. But Karen, having tried to do so at various points in her career, does not believe in defining who is a Jew and even what Judaism is, deeming the task impossible. Understanding what it means to be Jewish can’t come from a black and white definition, because it is such a contextual, nuanced position. This is why I think a collection that champions the everyday is the right place for the Jewish museum to be. It reminds me of when a difficult conversation would come up in school, and we would be encouraged to only use “I” statements, so as not to generalize other people’s experiences based on our own. We can’t make blanket statements about who is who and what is what. All we can do is point to specific stories, listen to lived experiences, and try to understand the decisions others have made. I am excited to see how the “everyday” will take the forefront as we continue to develop the new core exhibit.
Blog post by Exhibitions Intern Emilia Halvorsen. To read more posts by and about interns click HERE.