Category Archives: Material Culture & Public Humanities Methods

Blog posts related to RLCL 5204, Material Culture and Public Humanities Methods, Spring 2019.

Metasis of a Museum-goer

From the moment our Material Culture and Public Humanities class entered the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia, on March 29, 2019, our bodies moved within the space based on perceived roles and the configuration of the museum lobby and gallery spaces. Through a process informed by individual experience, the construction of gallery spaces, and our bodies in proximity to art on display, we transformed from person-on-the-street to museum-goer to interpreter-as-worker.

The Taubman Museum lobby’s interior facing the front entrance and information desk. Roanoke, VA. March 2019.

Upon entering, our class gathered around the information desk, bunching almost comically in a vast, nearly empty lobby. An employee welcomed us, gave us information about what art we would find, and oriented us to the space itself. In that moment, we became museum-goers. There is a mental shift that occurs when ordinary people become museum-goers. Museum-goers have an expectation that what they find in a museum is significant enough to be displayed and the act of display itself invites interpretation.

Margaret Lindauer describes a “critical museum visitor” as one who is concerned with the “visual, written, and spacial features of an exhibit.” I’d argue that any museum-goer is always already primed to be a critical museum visitor, regardless of the salience of their critique.

Lindauer calls the critical museum visitor’s attention to the architecture of the museum itself. The Taubman has pronounced angles, large windows, and concrete walls that are combined in a way one might expect from mid-century modern. Large diamond-shaped windows, lit at night, bring to mind the Louvre. Its architecture is what one expects from a modern museum that includes art and installations from all periods.

A view of the Roanoke skyline from the second story of the Taubman Museum. Roanoke, VA. March 2019.

A critical museum visitor, argues Lindauer, is also one who understands how the space reveals who the institution’s “ideal visitor” is. She defines an ideal visitor as “one who would be ideologically and culturally at home in the exhibition or politically comfortable with the information that is presented.” All visitors to the Taubman have a second-story view of Roanoke’s historic district and vintage, rooftop advertisements. Visitors are even invited to visit the museum’s third story for the expressed purpose of taking in this view.

This juxtaposition and amalgamation of historic and artistic, brick and glass, horizontal and angled, and new and old signal that an ideal museum visitor has an appreciation for historic preservation. Moreover, the ideal museum visitor believes in the urban redevelopment process that incorporates the arts as part of revitalization efforts. In this way, museum visitors are meant to recognize the relevance and importance of the past for the future of Roanoke.

Inside the galleries, museum-goers transform into interpretive laborers in a corporate environment. Bob Trotman’s exhibit, Business as Usual, has a strong and purposeful effect on its audience. According to the information about the exhibit on display, the catch phrase business as usual “reflects the implacable force of profit-making which lies at the heart of corporate culture and much government policy.” His work is meant to reflect broad themes of “power, privilege, and greed.”

The sculptures are varied in color and size. Some hang from the ceiling and others seem to be pushing up from the ground. The impact this has on a visitor is instantaneous. There is no obvious direction for visitors to take, no ordering of sculptures. When visitors enter the space, I observed that most moved toward the right side and followed an oval trajectory around the space.

From the entrance to the gallery, visitors see the variety of sculptures and media used by artist Bob Trotman in his exhibit “Business as Usual.” Taubman Museum, Roanoke, VA. March 2019.

As visitors move into the space, motion sensors awaken sculptures. This is jarring and unexpected at first, but then I found myself waiting to see how a sculpture might come to life. And as I moved through the space, more and more sculptures began moaning, groaning, clicking, thumping, flowing, pouring, and tapping.

This first video clip is of a sculpture called “Waiter”(2014). Taubman Museum, Roanoke, VA. March 2019.

The second clip shows two sculptures. The first is “Claptocracy” (2019) and second is “Fountain” (2014), both of which are part of Trotman’s exhibit titled “Business as Usual” at the Taubman Museum, Roanoke, VA. March 2019.

Trotman’s website states that his statues are meant to reflect a tradition of carved religious figures and ships’ mastheads. His work uses this tradition to satirize power and privilege. In the way that his carvings perform, they also satirize the museum-going experience. The large, vast, minimal, and quiet space of the museum lobby is drastically different from this gallery space in which his anguished, fearful, and angry workers make noises that echo off the white walls.

Once deep inside the gallery with many of the sculptures moving and making noise, I felt unsettled and anxious. I found myself confused, not knowing what direction to look, and moving my head quickly to find the origins of a new noise. It simulates the experience of working in a corporate, cubicled environment. It immediately brought to mind the sounds of computers clicking, telephones ringing, muffled conversations, drawers opening and closing, and papers being shuffled. The sounds within the gallery mock or magnify the sounds you might hear in a corporate environment and function to make strange the sounds of the corporate office by recreating them (not recreating the exact sounds, but recreating relative sounds). In this way the critical museum visitor becomes a worker, feeling physically overwhelmed by trying to isolate and understand individual sculptures.

“White Men” (2015) hang from the ceiling in postures that suggest a forceful forward motion. Taubman Museum, Roanoke, VA. March 2019.

From the back of the gallery, with sounds coming from every direction, viewers see the back of “White Men” (2015) and “Martin” (2008) kneeling in front on the left. These sculptures by Bob Trotman are part of the exhibit “Business as Usual” at Taubman Museum, Roanoke, VA. March 2019.

In addition to sound and movement, Trotman’s sculptures change in other ways as you move through the space. It is surprising to see “White Men” (2015), which exhibits power and forward force, is hollow. These men are even more dehumanized from the back. From the front they are faceless in the generality of their features and the repetition of those features. From the back they are mere silhouettes. Empty.

One of Bob Trotman’s sculptures, “Martin” (2008) looks more disturbing from the back than the front. His bare feet and posture, from the rear, suggest he might be executed. Taubman Museum, Roanoke, VA. March 2019.

This sculpture titled “Martin” (2008) also seems more sinister from the back. From the front he is a corporate worker pleading or falling to his knees from exhaustion. From the rear, the viewer sees him positioned as if for an execution. His bare feet remove him from the corporate context provided by his clothes. Viewers ask, “If this man is no longer in an office, where is he?” Our minds suggest he could be a political prisoner or a man condemned.

Another way “Business as Usual” is displayed differently than other gallery spaces is that there are no benches inside. Most galleries had small wooden benches (although the permanent collection had several plush, black pleather benches) positioned to allow visitors the opportunity to sit and consider works of art.

There is no tranquil contemplation in “Business as Usual.” Visitors are not invited to linger but are instead meant to become uncomfortable by the sounds, movements, sizes disparities, and physical contortions of the sculpture subjects.

As viewers exit the gallery, it is obvious that we were not meant to relax. Visitors clock out of the exhibit using a time card that reads “Your work is my business.” Visitors to the exhibit are on the clock and each time a visitor clocks out, one last resounding “thump” echos through the museum corridor. Trotman mockingly draws back the curtain on museum curation, revealing museum visitors as interpretive workers whose time and energy benefit the artist himself and the museum as an institution.

As critical museum visitors, our work is interpretation. Individual sculptures in “Business as Usual” offer plenty for visitors to interpret, but the space and nature of its display (especially in contrast to the museum lobby and architecture) controls our visit, our movements, and our interpretations.

Museum-goers who leave the “Business as Usual” exhibit are invited to grab a time card and clock out. Taubman Museum, Roanoke, VA. March 2019.

Sources:

Margaret Lindauer, “The Critical Museum Visitor.” In New Museum Theory and Practice, edited by Janet Marstine, 203-225. Blackwell, 2006.

“Taubman Museum of Art.” www.taubmanmuseum.org (retrieved April 2, 2019).

Trotman, Bob. “bob trotman.” www.bobtrotman.com (retrieved April 2, 2019).

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Memory Objects: Considering the animation of memory, material, and joy in Jose Lugo Arroyo’s sculptures.

Sculptor Don Jose Lugo Arroyo spent years carving and fashioning nearly 100 tableaus that depict scenes from his childhood — life for cane workers in Puerto Rico in the 1930s and 1940s. His carvings range in size from around 3 inches tall to around a foot in height. His daughter Sonia Badillo explained that many of his earlier carvings are smaller. Don Jose began making them larger, painting them, making the figures more detailed once his wife started saving and preserving them.

This image shows a portion of Don Jose Lugo’s collection of carvings. The miniatures are grouped together on shelves by categories like chores, working sugarcane, pastimes, and religion.

In the most obvious way, these sculptures are memory objects, which Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1989) describes as functioning to “materialize internal images, and through them, to recapture earlier experiences.” Don Jose made these objects to capture and illustrate his personal memories. But Don Jose said he was remembering his younger days in Puerto Rico while carving them. The objects are both the product of remembering and physical manifestations of memory.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (using the work of Ray Faust) notes the memory objects bring moments of the past into the future when the items are displayed and viewed in one’s living space. Looking at Don Jose’s collection, viewers feel the sense of the past converging with the present, especially because we have the opportunity to ask Don Jose about his work. The presence of the creator adds almost another layer, offering viewers the tableau memory, the memories in juxtaposition to our contemporary understandings, and these objects as touchstones to access additional information from Done Jose’s memories.

Sonia explained that her father go into the room in which these works are displayed and uses them to think about his childhood. In this way, the memory objects are tiny moments in time frozen for observation. On the other, they are used to reawaken and recall the past.

This miniature, made by Jose Lugo Arroyo, depicts a man feeding chickens and is positioned on a shelf with other scenes categorized as “Doing the Chores.”

For Susan Stewart, the miniature, as a genre, functions to magnify and increase the importance of the object as well as has the ability to make its context remarkable. Certainly, this is true for Don Jose’s collection. The moments he captures are moments of everyday life, like feeding the chickens. This is a moment that would not be as difficult for a younger audience to understand (whereas some of depictions require explanation). And yet, despite its familiarity, the miniature form asks viewers to lean in. It casts a magnifying glass over an everyday action. It draws our attention to the tiniest details of the action — the position of the figure’s left arm as if he is sprinkling grain, the chicken legs positioned as if they are moving forward in a flurry.

The context and positioning of the miniatures in Don Jose’s collection also magnify their meaning. They are grouped in sub-collections or ensembles based on categories. The man feeding chickens is part of a grouping called “Doing the Chores.”

The man feeding the chickens is center in this grouping categorized as “Doing the Chores.” Other chores depicted by Jose Lugo Arroyo’s carving are cooking, sweeping, and milking a cow.

Taken together — women cooking, milking a cow, sweeping the floor, feeding animals, churning butter — the carvings have a more clear purpose. In their grouping, we get a sense they are meant to help viewers make sense of the memories and provide categories that help viewers understand daily life. It is the grouping and categorizing that helps these memory objects function as objects that educate  about daily life in 1930s and 1940s Puerto Rico.

For Stewart, the miniature inherently causes the viewer to focus on the materials themselves. She notes that the text and functionality of miniature books are stripped away and the focus becomes what the books are made of and the skill displayed in their making.

Don Jose’s skill to create these scenes is on display alongside the miniatures, especially the way he captures movement and expression in human forms. The material is also on display, especially those moments of difference when he uses something besides wood.

Here Jose Lugo Arroyo depicts a cockfight (front) among other pastimes. The roosters are made, not out of wood like his other sculptures, but out of palm leaves.

I was instantly drawn to his depiction of a cockfight because the material used was different than most of his sculptures. Here he used palm leaves, and it so aptly captures the movement, kinetic energy, and feather details of the roosters.

Often works of art that depict the past are considered in terms of nostalgia. Inherent in how we culturally understand the word nostalgia is a sense of sadness that comes from longing for something past. It’s important to stress that Don Jose does not verbally express any sadness about the past. He said he felt happy carving the miniatures and feels happy now looking at them. And there is an overwhelming sense of hopefulness in his work in that they capture small moments of joy alongside depictions of hard work.

In Jose Lugo Arroyo’s sculpture called “Coconut Drink,” the coconut is the main character.

In “Coconut Drink,” for instance, we see a celebration of the coconut. It depicts the celebration of the thing itself.  One coconut is broken open to show the milk inside. We see the action and method needed to break it open. And we see how it can be drunk from the shell itself. The men seem almost secondary in the sculpture, which celebrates the coconut.

Don Jose is also a painter and Sonia was kind and gracious enough to allow a group of material culture students to wander through their home and look at artwork hung throughout the house. Among the paintings, one photograph captured my imagination. The photo is of a large-scale nativity Don Jose made from felled trees and objects they cleaned up at his Puerto Rican home after Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

This is a photograph of a large-scale nativity scene created by Jose Lugo Arroyo from felled trees after Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

This image maybe best speaks to the inherent hopefulness I see reflected through his collection of sculptures. Even in the aftermath of a frightening storm, Don Jose created a sculpture and scene that (in the most novice of interpretations) is about rebirth, beginnings, and hopefulness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources:

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Objects of Memory: Material Culture as Life Review.” In Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: A Reader, ed. Elliott Oring (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1989), 329-338.

Susan Stewart, “The Miniature” from On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, pp. 37-69. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.

With additional background information about Don Jose Lugo Arroyo and his collection from:

Julián Antonio Carrillo, “Fieldworker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History in Wood and Words,” in Folklore, Art, and Aging, edited by Jon Kay, 55-79. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018.

 

 

 

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Archiving the Sacred: Navigating Public vs. Private in Virginia Tech’s Condolence Archive

There is something inherently reverent about archival work. The stacks are quiet and orderly. There is an order to the rows of shelves that mimic church pews. The atmosphere seems to invite contemplation.

The 2008 film Objects and Memory is an examination of objects and the collection and preservation of those objects following 9/11. The film shows the last column of the World Trade Center, which had become a repository for messages and memorabilia, taken down and moved from the site. As it was lowered to the ground, police and fire department buglers played “Taps.” Once on its side, it was covered in black fabric and a wreath laid on it. It looked like a coffin. The column was given a funeral, a military funeral.

University Archivist Tamara Kennelly oversees Virginia Tech’s Permanent Condolence Archive Developed after the April 16, 2007, shootings. Kennelly expressed the emotional toll she felt managing the archive. She cried in the archive every day for two years. Even now, approaching the 12-year anniversary of the incident, Kennelly still fights back tears as she describing  objects in the collection.

The reverence and ritual shown the column made me consider the possibility that the act of curation itself can be commemoration. An archivists’ tears are another way the act of curation becomes a ritual of commemoration.

Material Culture scholars Barbara Babcock and Bjornor Olsen would suggest the commemoration of curation becomes another voice in the multivocality of objects as they are recontextualized. A number of objects in Virginia Tech’s April 16 Condolence Archive are everyday objects that were repurposed as commemorative objects left at spontaneous shrines or sent to the university in mourning. In their repurposing, they take on plural or hybrid meanings. The process of curation is a new reading or interpretation that again creates more complex, patchworked meaning.

These everyday objects are compelling in how they demonstrate the immediacy of responses to the tragedy — people left messages through items they had at hand and used every day. The following three items are everyday items repurposed as commemorative objects. Moreover, they are nonverbal objects that have been written on to create print objects. Both aspects must be considered.

This $2 bill is inscribed with a message signed by Mark Putnam. It was left as part of a spontaneous shrine on the Virginia Tech campus and is part of the university’s Permanent Condolence Archive developed after the April 16, 2007, shootings.

This $2 bill is interesting because the inscription offers a provenance of meaning. It was once U.S. currency that became a good luck charm for a college freshman named Mark Putnam. It was then inscribed and repurposed as a commemorative as part of a spontaneous shrine.

The object was carried on Mark’s person over a number of years. The inscription states that there is “nowhere else in the world I would rather leave this” and “I am so proud to be a Hokie.” The statement suggests that the bill has become a symbol of his experience and time at Virginia Tech and he wants it to stay with the place it has become associated with. The inscription read, “I love all of you,” which could be a message for those who were killed in the shooting or for the grieving Virginia Tech community at large.

These goggles were left as part of a spontaneous shrine at Virginia Tech following the April 16, 2007, shooting. The are inscribed to “Mike,” presumably Michael Pohle, Jr. a senior majoring in biology, who was killed on April 16. These goggles are part of the university’s permanent Condolence Archive.

In “Performative Commemoratives: Spontaneous Shrines and Public Memorialization of Death,” Jack Santino states that all rituals are public, but they laying of spontaneous shrines bring the private into the realm of public ritual.

These goggles beautifully illustrate the interplay between public and private at a spontaneous shrine. They offer a private message to a victim of the shooting, Michael Pohle, Jr. a senior majoring in biology. Whereas the $2 bill more connects to the experience of the mourner, these goggles make observers feel a personal connection to the victim. He wore these or ones like them in class. They contextualize his role as a student and point to what type of classes he might have taken. They humanize the victim.

Words written on the goggles are now nearly illegible. You can make out “Rest in peace” and “You will be missed,” but the words are clearly written to the deceased. A private message shared publicly.

Roger Chartier, in “Texts Forms, and Interpretations,” stresses that the reading of a text creates meaning and that the interpretation of an object carries with it meaning from the historical setting in which it is interpreted. As the red ink has faded from these goggles, except for dots at the intersections of letters, it brings to mind another famous pair of eyewear often used as part of anti-gun discourse — John Lennon’s bloodstained glasses. This is an interpretation outside the realm of the commemorator’s intent, but it is a link modern readers are likely to make, especially as the image resurfaces on Twitter. In recent years after a mass shooting, Yoko Ono tweets an image of the glasses with a death count of the number of people killed by gun in the United States since John Lennon.

Because of the intimacy of the goggles in relation to the victim, the personal message, and the unintended similarity to a famous political object, this is one of the most political objects I examined in the collection.

These are commemorative handkerchiefs sent to Virginia Tech by Florida inmate Sean Cameron Comer. The handkerchief along with a letter and envelope are part of the university’s permanent Condolence Archive developed after the April 16, 2007, shootings.

These final objects are handkerchiefs repurposed into backdrops for a commemorative poem and drawing. These items were sent to Virginia Tech by Sean Cameron Comer, a then inmate in the Florida Department of Corrections. A letter accompanying these objects states that Sean felt close to every victim even though he did not know them. He goes on to write, “Love and kindness without any expectation rubs off onto others. And always returns in other ways when we need it.”

Like the $2, these handkerchiefs are personal in their connection to the commemorator rather than the victims. They are daily objects, and highly personal in their intended use. Unlike the intimate connection both the other objects had with Virginia Tech, these objects are removed.

They are, however, intriguing. Viewers who look at them are drawn in, invited to think about the inmate’s daily life. What kind of access did he have to news reports of the incident? The letter indicates he was given 7 years for an offense connected to alcohol and driving. Did he hurt someone while driving intoxicated that makes him feel remorse for the Virginia Tech victims? In many ways these objects (although they come with an letter explaining them) raise more questions than the other two objects examined here.

In this brief consideration, there is something to glean about the proximity of an object to individuals — proximity of daily use and proximity of emotional connection. This is a proximity that informs meaning during the recontextualization of objects, and it is present in the process of curation. As an archivist spends hours, days, months, and years in an archive, objects begin to have the familiarity of daily objects. There exists a kind of tension between the commonplace and the sacred as objects are handled over and over again with the formality and ritual of archives.

Sources:

Objects and Memory. Film. Directed by Jonathan Fein and Brian Danitz, 2008.

Babcock, Barbara. “Artifact.” In Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments, edited by Richard Bauman, 204-216. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Chartier, Roger. “Texts, Forms, and Interpretations.” From On the Edge of the Cliff: History, Language, and Practices, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane, 81-89. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997

Olsen, Bjornar. 2006. “Scene from a Troubled Engagement: Post-structuralism and Material Culture Studies. In Handbook of Material Culture, ed. Christopher Tilley, et al., 85-103. Los Angeles: Sage.

Santino, Jack. 2006 “Performative Commemoratives: Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death.” In Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death, ed. Jack Santino, 5-15. Palgrave-Macmillan.

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