Intern Weekly Response: Exhibit Review

Posted on July 25th, 2019 by

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 review an exhibit that they had recently visited. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here. 


~From Intern Elana 

For my exhibition review, I have decided to focus on an exhibit that I was able to see at the Smithsonian on our Intern D.C. Day. After going on the gallery tour of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), a fellow guest asked our tour guide which exhibit he would recommend that we visit next and he suggested “Americans.” Thus, I went in with no idea what the exhibit would be about. When I entered the hall, I was greeted with a large room with its black walls covered in bright images of Native Americans in American pop culture, from the Land o’ Lakes butter logo to an Indian motorcycle. This black and white color scheme made the brightly colored images and objects pop and gave the whole exhibition a modern and visually striking appearance. This room made it instantly clear what this exhibition would focus on: the myths and stories of Native Americans as a part of American popular culture: how they came to be and why certain stories are particularly popular. Stepping into the first room made me realize how multi-media focused this exhibition was. The back wall projected video clips, the side walls were covered in images and objects in cases mixed together and two long tables in the center of the room were outfitted with touchscreens that allowed visitors to learn about the images and objects on the surrounding walls. Although I am typically a person who is more drawn to objects, I appreciated the use of multi-media in this exhibit. It allows the visitor to see how narratives permeate so many aspects of how we receive information, from movies and television to books to products you might buy at the grocery store.

Photo Credit: https://americanindian.si.edu/

Four rooms jutted off from this center room. Three of the rooms were filled with what one might call an exhibit within an exhibit and the last had a video installation. Each of these rooms told a different popular American story that centered on Native Americans: Pocahontas, the battle of Little Bighorn, the Trail of Tears and Thanksgiving. They attempted to get at the truth of each of these stories and understand why these specific stories became so ingrained in the American narrative. Each room did so effectively by using the multimedia aspect of the exhibition. It was only through interactives, videos, objects, artwork, and text together that the exhibit was able to tell each story and explain how it became so ingrained in the American conscious. Personally, I wish that more than just a video had been included for the Thanksgiving story because the multimedia aspect of the other rooms led to a much greater depth to the stories and a better understanding of how stores such as these become so popular and ubiquitous. However, each of the other rooms did a great job of telling the stories they each focused on. For example, the Little Bighorn room, called “The Indians Win,” used artwork of the battle made by both sides, newspapers, posters, and Native objects to show “Why have Americans been obsessed with this one loss rather than dozens of victories?” and how the image of the “Plains Indian warriors came to represent all Indians.”

 

Photo Credit: https://sarahruffingrobbins.com/2018/03/30/americans-exhibit-at-the-nmai/

This exhibit made me consider how narratives, not limited to stories about Native people, become ubiquitous in society today. It made me rethink these particular stories, stories that I had heard for years and just accepted, and inspired me to take another look at other stories that are ingrained in the American consciousness. It made me think about where I absorb information from, even from something as simple as the logo on a stick of butter. The message behind this exhibition is incredibly resonant in this world where we are constantly consuming from hundreds of sources.  As you might be able to tell, I really enjoyed this exhibit and found it to be highly successful in conveying its story. If you are able to, I highly recommend seeing it in person at the NMAI or experience it online at the link below.

Exhibition website: https://americanindian.si.edu/americans/ 


~From Intern Ariella 

Usually, people go to museums to check out things they’ve never seen before. They don’t go to look at things that they already know.

Americans challenges that idea by flipping it on its head.

Americans is an exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Open since January 2018, the exhibit centers on showing visitors images that they’re already familiar with.  Most Americans will recognize an Indian Halloween costume, have learned the tune for “Ten Little Indians,” and notice the classic wooden statues outside smoke shops. But the amount of Indian images, terminology, and stories that have infiltrated American culture stretch much farther. Americans seeks to point this out to its audience, and does an extremely successful job.

The Americans exhibit at NMAI features displays of Indian images in American culture, as well as several deep-dive rooms.

Visitors enter the long, narrow gallery, which is a wing on the NMAI’s third floor. On both sides, from floor to ceiling, are objects. Each has the image or loans its name to Indians.

Directly to the left, by the entrance, is a bright yellow 1948 Indian Chief Motorcycle. Straight ahead, a screen plays the clips from various TV shows and movies featuring Indian characters. Several couches enable visitors to sit and just look around- which they would likely do, if they could easily read the panels by the objects lining the walls.

NMAI’s choices in what to include are interesting to consider. According to its Media Fact Sheet, Americans features nearly 300 objects along the walls. While looking at the items, my main question was: why these? Why did South Park and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving make the cut, but not the Twilight Saga’s depiction of a werewolf Indian tribe, or Tom and Jerry episodes featuring Indian war cries?

Perhaps the choices were made to highlight instances where the Indian influence was less obvious to casual visitors. For example, there is no sign in the exhibit of the Washington Redskins, a team whose name and mascot are so discussed that both Wikipedia and the Huffington Post have categories devoted exclusively to the topic. But the Seattle Seahawks, whose mascot is likewise inspired by Indians, is included. By making this choice, NMAI is able to inform visitors of a new angle to a topic they thought they knew about. Everyone has heard of the Redskins controversy. The Seahawks label instead asks, “Are all Native American–themed mascots bad? Maybe not,” before explaining that the logo was inspired by art from the North Pacific Coast tribes.

The best aspect of the exhibit was just off of the main gallery. Four small, deep-dive exhibits are included as small wings off the main room. Each focuses on a different, commonly known tale about Indians: Thanksgiving, the Battle of Little Bighorn, the Trail of Tears, and Pocahontas. The rooms walk visitors through the inaccuracies in the widely known stories.

I was least impressed with the Thanksgiving room, which features a five-minute video explaining the holiday’s confused origins. There was nothing wrong with the informative clip, but I didn’t learn anything new. On the other hand, the Pocahontas and Trail of Tears rooms were especially well-done. The Pocahontas room used several different mediums to carry its message across: a public interview video, panels along the walls, and lights pointing out characters on the Capitol’s Frieze of American History.

One of the exhibit highlights is the deep examination of the characters in this section of Frieze of American History, located in the Pocahontas section.

One of the cleverest, and most telling, aspects of the exhibit comes before visitors even walk in. Just the title reveals much of what the gallery’s aims are. It is called Americans – not “American Indians” or “Indians in America.” It is a short, simple, word that the majority of visitors will identify with themselves. In titling the exhibit Americans, NMAI reminds visitors of the way that Indians have been present in American culture from the beginning. Because they are pointed out, they wind up belonging with all Americans.


~From Intern Mallory 

For this week’s blog post we were asked to evaluate an exhibition. While there are many museums in the Baltimore-D.C. area, the most recent museum I’ve been to was in Missouri. And while I would love to discuss an exhibition in the area for others to visit, I wouldn’t be able to give a proper evaluation as it has been a while since I visited a museum on my own. So, for this week, I’ll be talking about the Titanic Museum in Branson, MO.

The museum, as the name suggests, discusses the Titanic. At the start of the museum is highlights how the Titanic was made, then discusses the voyage through the iceberg. It has a section dedicated to the passengers, and the museum ended with the discovery of the Titanic in recent years, with the trek down to the wreckage.

The exterior of the Titanic Museum.

Personally, I really enjoyed the entire museum. I thought that it flowed nicely, starting at the building of the Titanic and continuing through the more recent re-discovery of her. The exhibits mainly housed quotes from passengers and crew, images from onboard the Titanic, and some artefacts (which included items from passengers, some dishware, boarding passes).

Interior of the museum, interactives within the exhibit

One thing I found to be very interesting was that upon entering the building, everyone was given a boarding pass with a name. This is who you “were” for the time in the exhibits. In the last room there was a wall dedicated to the passengers and crew onboard the Titanic at the time of her sinking, with both survivors and victims listed. This created a very interesting way of connecting the visitors to the people who lived through this event, gaining interest as they walk though and discover more.

One this I found curious was that while the tour was mainly self-guided, with captions to images and text blocks scattered about, there was also an audio tour. While the audio portion wasn’t mandatory, everyone was given a way to access it, and there were numbers throughout the exhibition which would provide more information about certain subjects.

Interior of the museum. A member of the staff dress as a crew member on the Titanic, standing in front of the replication of the Titanic’s grand staircase within the museum.

All and all, I really enjoyed my trip. While it was a bit dark at times, I learned so much more than I previously knew. The audio tour portion was, at times, a bit too much – as it could hold up a certain area. But I still think that the audio tour added much more to the entire experience. The few interactives (panels that you could stand on which were angles to show how steep the deck got during the sinking and water as cold as it was that night – 28 degrees) were cleverly places and fun to interact with. There were also small question panels around where you could test your knowledge on the topic discussed in the room which was an interesting way to not only help visitors remember information but also to increase visitor retention time.

But the mystery and narrative being the person who you “are” while walking through really grabbed not just my attention, but also the group that I was with. We all were actively looking through the rooms, trying to look for clues for the fates of our passengers.

The exhibition was very well done, immersive yet not suffocating so. It provided a new outlook into the lives of the passengers, their experiences, their lives after. Personally, I learned a lot and found the exhibit to be very engaging. The way the individual cases were set up were also well done, for the lack of physical items from the ship that survived nothing seemed empty or overcrowded. I also think that the lifestyle and culture of the era was very well represented. It also handled the topic of the tragedy very well, being respectful while also providing all the information they have.


~From Intern Hannah 

This is a review of Body Image: Arts of the Indian Subcontinent, featured in the Freer Gallery, one half of the Smithsonian’s National Museums of Asian Art. I visited this exhibit on the JMM Intern’s trip to DC and gave a short summary of my experience in that blog post. However, this was one my favorite exhibits that I visited that day, so I think it deserves an in-depth look.

The exhibit has a strong focus on the human body, specifically, the human body that was accepted to be the most beautiful during the Mughal Empire. Most of the objects in this exhibit were from the period of time when the Mughal Emperors ruled over much what we would now call the Indian Subcontinent. Their reign, which ran from 1526-1858 covered what is now India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. This empire was one of the most powerful and prosperous in the world. A lot of art was produced in this period, as appearance meant a lot in this society. The representations of bodies and fashion in this exhibit can tell us a lot about common thoughts and beliefs on the nature of being, gender roles, social ideas, and hierarchies of power at the time. Dress, posture, and conduct were all ways for individuals to show their power, authority, and loyalty. Mughal courtiers often wore beautifully and carefully crafted luxury objects on their bodies, in order to display their sophistication. This Mughal strive for refinement was very tied to the regional king’s authority and inspired both Muslim and Hindu civilians to adopt imperial fashions.

One of my favorite parts of the exhibit was not an object, but the curator’s choice to include magnifying glasses for visitors to use. I definitely utilized this tool to be able to see the intricate patterns and details featured in some of the art in this exhibit.

Figure 1: The inclusion of magnifying glasses was a great touch and helped me to better interact with the objects!

As for objects in the exhibit, I loved this displa6y centered on the use of flowers in Mughal Empire art. The display features a dagger with a beautiful floral motif on the handle, which might have belonged to a Mughal courtier. The flowers are made of rubies, which were valued higher than diamonds, so this would have belonged to someone with means. The middle object is a scent box with painted red and gold lilies, and probably held betel, an aromatic breath-freshener used during intimate moments. The label reads, “in ancient India, sophisticated lovers were always well perfumed.” The third object was a sprinkler, which probably held rose water to be sprayed on guests. The label says it was probably made in Avadh, a north Indian kingdom that emerged towards the end of the Mughal empire, as it was in decline. Also in this room were displays with beautiful jewelry and other adornments. In this first room also lived an imperial scroll that gave beautiful images, and an idea of how these beauty standards were understood and passed on through kingdoms and generations.

Figure 2: Dagger, scent box, and rosewater sprayer

Figure 3: A scroll featured in the exhibit, showing some depictions of the ‘ideal’ body and fashion

The second room of the exhibit turns away from royalty and towards gods. There is a long list on one of the walls listing the Thirty-Two Body Marks (called Lakshanas) of a Buddha. These markers run from long legs and white teeth, to curls that come out of the head clockwise, and retracted genitals. There were many statues of Buddha in different representations around the room. It was really interesting to see so many interpretations of the same ideal.

I really enjoyed this exhibit and the beautiful objects in it. I have a soft spot for decorative daggers and swords, so I got very excited by the ones featured in the exhibit. I think it is comforting to look at body image standards from another culture and time. It’s great reminder that all beauty standards are socially constructed and are also constantly changing. It is not a short falling to not fit an ideal that is not realistic. It felt really human to be confronted with fashion styles associated with the time and think about what has changed and what has not, in terms of elitism in fashion and the way that mainstream fashion is still greatly influenced by those with power and money. Although ideas about the body, fashion, and gender are very different now than they were in 17th century India, I felt like I could understand the motivation and societal pressure to want to look or present a certain way. Some things never change.

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Travel Tuesday: The Interns Do DC!

Posted on July 16th, 2019 by

For this week’s #TravelTuesday post, we’re putting #TravelingWithGrace on hold to share some reflections from our summer interns. Last Friday they went on their DC Day field trip, exploring a variety of museums on the national mall. We asked them to share their thoughts here.


~From Intern Elana

Last Friday, the other interns and I had the opportunity to visit various museums of the Smithsonian. Personally, I started with the Freer/Sackler Museum and went to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) afterwards. I had been to the Freer/Sackler before, so I am not going to touch on that museum here.

(Though I did get some great photos of my “flat friend,” Steven, there.)

This past Friday was my first visit to the NMAI and it was an amazing experience. I started with the cafeteria, as it was lunchtime, and was able to try some Native American food, or something relatively close to that. Then, some of the other interns and I went on a gallery tour with one of the museum educators. Our guide was part of the Indigenous community and from a fairly local tribe. I really enjoyed his tour. He was able to relay the facts of the exhibition while inserting his own personal opinions and experiences as a part of the Native American community. After this tour, I explored two of the museum’s other exhibitions, “Americans” and “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire.”

I had an amazing experience at the NMAI and had some takeaways that could apply to my future museum career and my future museum visits.

The NMAI took such care in allowing the voices of Native people to shine through in every aspect of the museum, from the architecture of the building to the food served at the cafeteria to the tour guide who told his own story. As I continue in my museum career, I hope to share voices and stories as carefully and effectively as this museum has. In addition, I learned to value tours in a way I hadn’t before. I am typically not one to take a tour and though this tour, I realized that tours aren’t necessarily some random volunteer relaying facts, but that they can provide more personal insight to an exhibition. I was able to experience the exhibit in a completely different and insightful way that added to my experience.


~From Intern Megan

During the intern field trip to Washington D.C., I got the opportunity to visit a couple Smithsonian museums. This opportunity was very exciting for me because even though I live close to the district, I do not visit the city a lot. I decided at the beginning that Instead of rushing to visit a lot of museums I wanted to take the time to really look in depth at two different ones.

The first museum I visited was the Freer Gallery of Art. I looked at a few different exhibits and took the time to really process the details of the art; something I have not really done before. My favorite two exhibits were the Japanese art exhibit and the Buddha exhibit.

One piece in the Japanese art exhibit really caught my eye.

It had a very big, white canvas and the only two things on it were two women sitting in a boat on one side and some birds in the sky on the other. Overall, it was a very simplistic piece of work and I enjoyed its minimalist style; it showed that not everything that is beautiful must be complex/there is beauty in simplicity. At the same time, it was still able to portray traditional Japanese clothing that the women were wearing.

The second museum I visited was the Hirschhorn museum and sculpture garden. This museum had a lot more eccentric art which was enjoyable to walk through.

One of my favorite pieces from this museum was a painting of a person who appeared to be made out of gum or a similar substance and was stretching their face to the left and right with their hands.

I liked it not just for its uniqueness but also because the person being portrayed is not explicitly showing any emotion, leaving the audience to interpret the emotions that they want after looking at it. The artist left it up to the viewer to decide how they want to understand the piece even without knowing anything about the artist’s intentions.

Overall, the trip allowed me to take my time in the exhibits I visited and pay attention to each piece. I found that, in relation to interning at JMM, I also looked more in depth at the layout of each exhibit and wrote down some positives and negatives of the different types of setups. This is important to analyze because when creating an exhibit, it can be make-or-break how easily/effectively people are able to walk through and see everything.


~Intern Hannah

I was very excited to embark on our DC Day field trip, as I had not been to the Mall in Washington DC since a family vacation when I was in middle school. I was very excited to see some of the Smithsonian Museums there and told myself that I would try to hit as many as I could in our nearly six hour trip, where we were let loose to find our own way. I was able to go to three, which I think is pretty good, but gives me room for improvement.

At first, all the interns stuck together. We went to the Freer Museum, where we saw their exhibit called Body Image: Arts of the Indian Subcontinent. This was a beautiful exhibit focusing on beauty standards in the Indian Subcontinent, and especially how it related to their Gods. The center of this exhibit was the thirty-two body marks, called Lakshanas that make a Buddha. These marks range from long fingers and smooth and golden skin, to “jaw like a lion’s” and arms that extend below the knees. It was interesting to compare this exhibit, which was very focused on physicality, to one of the exhibits present at the JMM, Fashion Statement. Fashion Statement emphasizes the personal clothing choices that we make and asks each viewer to think about what their clothes and personal expression mean to them. I think that the Body Image exhibit leans more towards examining societies expectations of us and our bodies. Personal expression is a response to societies expectations, whether that is in the form of conforming or non-conforming, there must be something to set as a hegemony. The euro-centric standard of beauty that we hold to be true and right in Western culture is new and flawed. The beauty standard shown in this exhibit is old and true for many people. It was really refreshing to be surrounded with yes, perhaps fictional representations of the human body, but ones that felt so real and were round and robust.

“Flat Friend” Dimitri Visits the Freer.

I spent some more time walking around the Freer’s other exhibits before heading over to the National Museum of Natural History by myself to watch a tarantula feeding. I grew up deeply invested in zoos, living fifteen minutes away from the Bronx Zoo and attending summer ‘Zoo Camp’ there for many summers. Zoos and animals have a very important place in my heart so it felt very grounding to be in that space. I have visited the Natural History Museum in New York many times and I love it. It was very beautiful to stand in a circle and watch a volunteer feed this tarantula a cricket, surrounded by people of all ages, including kids, teenagers, college students, and adults. It was really cool to see how another museum, much different than the JMM, does educational programming. I then wandered around the insect area of the museum before venturing downstairs to look at all the fossils and skeletons, which is my favorite part of any natural history museum. I only spent about half an hour in the National Museum of Natural History, but I had a great time.

Dimitri at the Tarantula Feeding. He is scared of spiders, but put on a brave face.

After a nice iced coffee on the Mall, I joined interns Ariella and Elana for lunch at the café at the National Museum of the American Indian. I do not have a picture of my lunch, but let me tell you, it was delicious. The café at the NMAI features native and native-inspired recipes. We all had their version of tacos, which was fried bread topped with veggie chili and some fixing’s, which was absolutely delicious. The three of us then took a tour of the museum. The tour was really fascinating, led by a docent who is Native American himself and gave us his own views and opinions on certain topics brought up in the exhibit. It was a greatly beautiful museum, with unique architecture and layout. There were also a lot of digital interactives in the exhibits, which was very cool to see and interact with. My favorite parts of the museum were its main exhibit, Nation to Nation, which covered different treaties and agreements that the United States Government has made (and broken) with Native American Nations, and Americans, which discussed representation of Native Americans in mainstream American pop-culture, from Land-O-Lakes Butter to Pocahontas. After about an hour and a half of exploring the museum by ourselves, we met back up with the rest of the group to head home.

Dimitri and I enjoying an iced coffee and people watching in-between museums.

It was a really great day, and I had the opportunity to explore museums I had not been to before. I connected with art from around the world, my childhood, and the history of the land that we stand on. It was a very powerful day in Washington, and I hope to return to the National Mall soon to finish my journey in seeing as many museums as possible.


~From Intern Ariella

Last Friday, we had an intern trip to DC. We had the freedom to check out any museum that we wanted, with two conditions. One: we had to consider questions designed to make us think about the museums we visited compared with JMM. Two: we were given new monster friends and had to document their experiences during the day.

Coming at the day from that perspective made me visit the museums with a new perspective. Two of the institutions really stood out to me: one that I’d never seen before, and one that I’d just visited a few weeks before.

The first museum I saw was the Freer|Sackler Institute of Art. Both display the Smithsonian’s collection of Asian art and are connected underground. I’ve never paid much attention to Asian art, so I decided that this was a good time to really look at some for the first time.

At the Freer|Sackler, I was most intrigued by two exhibits. Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, designed by James McNeill Whistler, is an entire room that doubles as an art piece. Golden peacocks are painted on the dark green walls, and blue and white porcelain lines the shelves. The colors don’t seem like they should match each other — technically, they don’t — but the combination is mesmerizing regardless.

Kombucha, wide-eyed and mesmerized, in The Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The second exhibit I loved at the Freer|Sackler was Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice across Asia. The gallery is set up with statues depicting the Buddha, but the main draw is the other qualities of the exhibit. The walls are deep purple, creating a calming atmosphere. Two smaller rooms off the exhibit lead to extended experiences: the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room, and a three-screened video depicting a day of Sri Lankan practice at the Ruwanwelisaya Stupa.

Both The Peacock Room and the Buddha exhibit showed me the power of creating an immersive space. Visitors literally step into Peacock and can sit down at a wooden table in the center of the room and observe for as long as they want. The room is silent, except for the sound of the security guard and visitors talking.

Encountering the Buddha, on the other hand, is louder. Recorded chants boom out from the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room, and it’s audible from the second one enters the room. The videos of Sri Lanka have music as well, and visitors can sit on comfy couches to watch. Both exhibits succeed because they allow viewers to become as much a part of the exhibit as they can.

After leaving the Freer|Sackler, I decided to get some lunch at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). I’d already seen NMAI, but liked the museum so much that I was happy to return. Plus, I hadn’t previously eaten at Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe, the museum restaurant.

Grabbing lunch at Mitsitam wasn’t meant to be a learning experience, but I’m glad that it turned out that way. The other interns and I got the Indian Taco, a delicious combination of fry bread, veggie chili, and classic taco toppings. I loved the meal but had no idea where it originated from. Mitsitam, which is set up buffet style, didn’t explain which foods came from where.

A quick search on the NMAI website showed us what the physical space did not explain: the Indian Taco was inspired by the Great Plains cultures. It made the experience that much more immersive to know where the food we were eating had come from. I just wish that NMAI had made it more distinct from the actual lunchroom itself. They could have followed the Freer|Sackler example of fully including visitors into the experience by explaining how they were a part of the museum displays.


And because interns shouldn’t be the only ones having fun, Joanna and I also tagged along and enjoyed our own “DC Day”! We started at the Museum of Natural History, where Joanna shared with me some of the highlights from their new fossil installation, the Deep Time ExhibitionBeing an old school dinosaur nerd, I was in heaven! But possibly my absolute favorite, surprising moment was discovering the mini-display by the bathrooms – all about poop!

(Fossilized poop, to be exact.)

After a delicious lunch at the AMNH cafe, Joanna and I headed a little further afield to stop in at the National Portrait Gallery. I was hankering to finally see the Obama portraits in person – and I was not disappointed! We also explored the current exhibit Votes for Women: Portraits of Persistence. The mix of personages highlighted in the exhibit was fascinating, and I really appreciated the attention paid to various schisms in the suffrage moment, particularly those about race.

I didn’t pick up the catalog on this visit, but it’s definitely going on my wish list.

~Intern Wrangler Rachel


 

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