Gilded Age Oasis: Maymont Mansion

One cannot visit the Maymont Mansion in Richmond, VA without experiencing a sense of awe!  If the house does not take your breath away, the immaculate scenery and expansiveness of the grounds will.  During my most recent visit, I had the chance to experience Maymont in its holiday glory.  The story of the mansion and the couple who called it home are essential Richmond history.  Let’s take a brief look:

The Maymont mansion and its grounds once belonged to James Henry and Sarah “Sallie” May Dooley.  Mr. Dooley was a businessman and philanthropist in the “new” or, “post-Confederate” South from Irish immigrant parents, while Mrs. Dooley came from an established Virginia pedigree. In their forties, they acquired the land along the James River that became Maymont.  Maymont takes its name from Sallie’s middle name “May”.

With a copious amount of rooms sprawled over four levels (basement level servant area, upper three levels of living space) the house is immaculate in its external and interior design.  Having been left to the city of Richmond in 1925 after the death of Sallie. The estate remains with nearly all the furnishings still there from when the Dooleys called it home.

Externally, Maymont features two specially designed gardens as well as an arboretum and many other smaller, though equally unique gardens that have been planted via donations from various groups.  An Italian and a Japanese garden make up some of the most unique settings you’ll find in Richmond.  For this reason, they are often the site of many outings, first dates, engagement photos, weddings and various other events.  If you’d like to have an event there, give this page of their website a look.

The Italian garden is not in bloom in November, however, the architectural landscape still brings quite a bit of ambiance to the area.  The Japanese garden doesn’t really have an offseason, although the famous Koi fish in the man-made lake do apparently get removed for the Virginia winter. For the purpose of this post, I have included pictures of the gardens from a winter and spring trip below:

The Maymont grounds Arboretum, indoor Nature Center, and extensive outdoor pseudo-free-range zoo attractions also bring in many patrons.  Among animals featured are cows, sheep, Bald Eagles, horse, fox, bears, etc.  While a good majority of these areas are free to enjoy during operating hours (the house has a “suggested” $5 fee) the nature center does require purchasing a ticket to enter.

 

Among the annual events that have been held at Maymont are a gigantic Jazz festival that happens every summer in August, and for many years a high school cross country event was held on the grounds.

Since 1975 the Maymont Foundation have been the managers of the 100-acre estate grounds.  The site remains the same size and with over 25 building intact and functioning it is the most complete mansion of its kind that still exists in the United States.

The Maymont Foundation is one of the most active museum sites on social media, having a readily updated Instagram and Facebook pages.  I highly encourage you to visit in the months ahead, to make a donation and go check out their full website.

 

*Disclosure:  I am not being paid by Maymont Foundation for this post.  I had a great few times visiting the grounds and wanted to highlight an awesome location in Richmond, VA

 

From Blank canvas to Exhibit and Story space: Creating the Experience!

When anyone takes the first step through the doors of any museum, they are greeted by a lot of visual information. This is either in the form of a gift shop/welcome center, or a ticket booth and a small initial exhibit space that holds a preview of the wonders within.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As seen in the pictures above, an empty space has no presence. Nothin invites you in and makes you go, “What’s that?”! This is how all museums, once they are built, look at the start. How do you get from nothing to something like this:

It takes lots of planning to envision, plan, and execute any exhibit. Even more complicated if it is going to be a temporary or “traveling” exhibit. Many questions must be answered. What are we trying to do with this exhibit? Will it fit the museum’s mission? Are our visitors interested in an exhibit like this? Etc.!

Ultimately, many permanent exhibits begin their lives as envisionment within the mind of either a museum educator or, curator. They create the idea of what the empty space can be, and how to use what artifacts or other mediums they have to tell the story that the individual museum wants to convey to its patrons.

A temporary exhibit, like the “Icebergs” at the National Building Museum featured in the video above, takes years to prep. The logistics of getting that exhibit intertwined with the rest of the museum calendar is a nightmare. At the Virginia War Memorial the current featured exhibit “Art of War” took over a year of planning and features work from several dozen individuals, many of them active or retired service members of the military. To accommodate this exhibit the primary galleries on the lower level of the education center were covered with black canvas, leaving the main exhibitions in place while giving the art something to be mounted against.**

In creating a space that is inviting for all ages with its abstract approach to modern exhibit design, the National Building Museum also brought the “Million Ball Beach”, to D.C. in the summer of 2015. It took an all hands on deck approach to change their great hall into an indoor oasis.

In another respect, what happens when a museum is being built? How does it choose to tell its story? What ways can that museum mold its brand new interior facade? Two recent, major examples are the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia (which took over 100 years to develop and build), and the Smithsonian Museum of African American History & Culture.

One could argue that the blocky styling of the exterior of the Revolution museum is not in keeping with the period whose story it tells. The grandiose and open interior is styled in a way that harkens back to an era of large ballrooms and banquet halls. This is done to show a contrast between the humbleness of the endeavor and the large undertaking to achieve the end result. For the museum of the American Revolution the goal was to intermingle the artifacts with the building to create an entire sense of awe and understanding of the events that led to the founding of the United States. The exterior and the interior define a cohesive experience.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For the newest Smithsonian museum, the build-out started in 2003 with then-President George W. Bush signing legislation to guarantee federal funding (270 million dollars) and land for the building.  How that museum has created its image and developed its exhibitions and its mission is intricate and begins with the design.  The exterior multi-layer building in styled to resemble crowns used in West African art and the interior tells stories of African-Americans from the earliest days of the colonies to the modern social activism movements.

When a museum crafts a message it does so with the intent of educating and entertaining an audience.  It starts out as a visionary concept, and finished as a physical marvel to behold for years to come!

 

**Photographs of “Art of War” exhibit are not permitted as all artwork is for sale and protected by individual copyright agreement

 

Collection Ethics and Management: The Cornerstone of the Institution

Two critical areas make up the life of any museum: It’s collection of items, and it’s development practices. In this piece let’s discuss the impact of collection ethics and the management of a collection.

Collections range in size from a few dozen objects at the smallest of local history/art museums, to several million items within the archives of the Smithsonian Institute. Regardless of collection size, or the size of the institution the collection is representing, a governance of ethics and laws discuss how a collection can be used, and not used, and how it may be expanded or lessened. When these protocols are not followed it is a detriment to the entire field.

The word “ethics” often conjures visions of greed and salacious activity within corporate America. Anyone remember the Enron scandal? However, ethics play a role in the museum field with regard to its acquisition, maintenance, and use of items within a collection. Several governing bodies have a “code of ethics” that includes bylaws for collection management and use. These are a few with their codes linked for reference:

American Alliance of Museums: Code of ethics

International Council of Museums: Code of Ethics for Museums

Association of Art Museum Directors: Code of Ethics

The third reference is particularly significant to this piece. A well-respected art museum in Virginia found itself embroiled in multiple ethical issues with the AAMD several years ago after committing a “violation of one of the most fundamental professional principles of the art museum field.” The museum in question is the Maier Museum, owned and operated by Randolph College (formerly Randolph Macon Women’s College), in Lynchburg, VA. The issues at the Maier have become a case study on how collections at museums are utilized and ultimately who controls a collection when the museum is owned and operated by a private non-profit entity.

Four pieces by respective artists George Bellows (Men at the Docks), Rufino Tamayo (Trovador), Edward Hicks (A Peaceable Kingdom), and Ernest Hennings (Through the Arroyo) were put up for sale by the Randolph Board of Trustees to enhance the endowment and develop key strategic partnerships for Randol College students. The four paintings put up for sale are seen below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The issue at hand is whether the Maier Museum was itself the purveyor, overseer, and “owner” of these pieces, or if Randolph College considered the Maier and its works part of the College’s assets to do with as they saw fit. In this case, the board of trustees decided that the Maier was an entity of the College and thus its collections were able to be used for the “fiduciary benefit” of the college.

At the time of the initial idea to sell the art pieces, Randolph College was facing an institutional identity crisis (having admitted men for the first time) and faced an increasing financial strain. Selling the art put Randolph in hot water with several museums and cultural ethics boards. The general rule is that “You don’t sell art to fix the boiler. The ethics are very clear on that,”.

Deasseccioning an item from any collection is a risky endeavor if not done for the furthering of the mission of the institution that is deaccessioning it. Randolph was not selling the art pieces to buy or attain more pieces of art to change the makeup of its collection (and even that skirts the ethics line), it was done to keep the college from going bankrupt.

Since the initial removal, the “Men at the Docks” has sold for $25.5 million in a private auction, “Trovador” for $7.2 million at private auction. “A Peaceable Kingdom” and “Through the Arroyo” both sold at private auction, final numbers on these two have not been disclosed. “Through the Arroyo” was returned to Randolph on loan by the anonymous buyer of the piece and the proceeds from the sale of “A Peaceable Kingdom” are being used to support an endowment for a “Director of Education” position at the Maier Museum.

How a museum cares for and utilizes its collection is what defines the quality of any institution. It is important for the public to hold the museum accountable for its actions. Randolph was censured for its practices and was later barred from having anything to do with any museum that was a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors, an organization they had no formal affiliation with.

We must all do our part to ensure that the history of our society, told through objects, and art, are taken care of in the highest respect.

We are all curators! Our museums are our collections!

 

Lights, Touchscreen, Action: Technology in Museums

In the modern world of technological advances happening everywhere, museums are no exception.  Several hundred museums have made substantial enhancements.  The question, “Why do museums need to have technology? Don’t they just show off old stuff?”  While it’s true that many historical artifacts are cared for in traditional methodology, museums must go to great lengths to intrigue modern visitors.  With that need to attract visitors, comes a natural affinity for modern technology, and even revamping technologies that have been used for generations.

Let us examine some areas of museum technology that are not widely discussed:  Lighting and Curation

20121218_rijksmuseum-019

Lighting:

It’s the first thing you notice about a museum, how it’s lit.  Is it vibrant, inviting and makes you want to experience more?  Or is it dull, dark, and have you begging to get back on the big yellow school bus and escape?

Lighting can alter the entire look and feel of a museum and its exhibits.  It can be an ally and an enemy.  Not all lighting is created equal, as not all light bulbs are created equal.  Some have lighting that can harm exhibits, and some have lighting that creates a new look and enhances the entire museum space.  The worst thing that can happen to a museum is for the curator to take down a piece of work so it can be worked on for light damage.  Before we get to the curators, let’s take a look at some good examples of museum lighting that more than likely have visitors flooding the gates:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Curation:

Curators are the most underrated, but most important people that work at museums around the world.  The work of a curator is an artform in itself as there are so many pieces to be accounted for, and a never-ending amount of techniques one must know in order to properly maintain any individual piece.  Ultimately, without even a half-decent curator, any museums archives and artifacts will degrade to the point of no return

curatorialOne of the largest curatorial efforts of the twentieth century involved the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City!  It is too difficult to explain all the different aspects of the restoration, please enjoy this wiki page, and these videos (Sistine Chapel part 1, Sistine Chapel part two).

The previous article and video shed light on the breadth of curation and it’s many tools.  Curators and site managers have been modernizing recently, with more science to research paint, wood, stone, etc.  This is especially helpful with historic site restorations.  In Lynchburg, VA a thorough, multi-procedure paint analysis and reproduction exercise was conducted at the Historic Sandusky house.

Now that we’ve discussed and shed light on some of the back of the house elements of museum technology, let’s discuss the new age of modern museology!

As one can guess, we live in an era with a smartphone in every pocket, more CGI that we know what to do with, and enough engineers and educators looking to spice things up just a little bit!  Check out the video below to see where the field is going!

An even more in-depth discussion is seen here in this TEDx talk:

 

What these two videos mean for the museum you visited as a child?  More likely than not, it will soon have some form of a technological overhaul!  You might not see it on the surface, but it will soon be there.

Many museums are also making the effort to integrate with the mobile technology we carry with us 24/7/365!  The V&A museum commissioned a report to discover the use of mobile technology by their visitors.  The results were astounding in 2013 (70% of visitors used smartphones) and would be an even higher percentage in 2017.

Several esteemed, internationally recognized museums have mobile apps or some form of mobile app store presence:

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY, USA)
  • The Natural History Museum (Kensington, London, UK)
  • 9/11 Museum Audio Guide: September 11 Memorial (New York, NY, USA)
  • BMW Museum (München, Germany)
  • The San Diego Museum of Art (San Diego, CA, USA)
  • Alfa Romeo Museum (Arese MI, Italy)
  • Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum (Oklahoma City, OK, US)

The Smithsonian Institute has a mobile app that will give you a virtual guide to all of its museum locations, theirs is more of a mobile version of their website!

As the visitorship changes at museums around the world, as they are adapting to the modern age, so must the museums change!  Several are reimagining their exhibits in ways that defy the senses and engage the mind!  As seen in this piece, museums aren’t just for housing the old, they are for experiencing the new!

The Guggenheim, the artist, and the impact of government and activism on the medium!

Whether you’re a fan of artwork or not, and unless you’ve been living in complete isolation, and possibly under a rock, then you’ve more than likely heard of the Guggenheim!  A place where artists have generally been allowed quite a bit of flexibility and freedom in their approach to a medium that for thousands of years been the most thought-provoking method of expression.  Now it seems, the modern world has caught up to the Guggenheim, and the artists that bring their work to the floor.

Recently, the traveling exhibit “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World”, was set to open at the Guggenheim.  An exhibit that has been featured, in one form or another around the world for several years, it is now being featured in the United States, at one of the premier art gallery institutions.  The works in the exhibit are intriguing at the least and absolutely repugnant at the worst.  Many have been called into question as “legitimate art” for several years, and in a country like the United States that values “mans best friend” as a near-sacred animal, one of the pieces is downright taboo.  But this begs several questions; where did this exhibit come from?  How was it envisioned?  What leads to the development of this style of artistic interpretation? Why were certain works pulled from the exhibit that was to be featured at the Guggenheim?

Let us examine, shall we?

It is important to note that China has been, and will continue to be, a totalitarian communist government.  Though it is on the world stage economically, academically, and athletically, there is still much censoring of creative expression.  This particularly impacts artists, writers, and anyone that does not blend in with the generally accepted message of the government.  The Tiananmen Square protests were the climax of several decades of political and social unrest within China.  In the aftermath, many artists left the country to pursue their idealistic ambitions.  While many returned, they would eventually leave again.  From 1989 to 2008, the period that the Guggenheim exhibit will explore, the country experienced a crushed democratic experiment to a rebirth at the Beijing Olympic games.  This is reflected in the artwork in some extreme ways.  It is meant to examine the brutality of the world, idealistically, spiritually, and violently.

While the exhibit is going to be shown, with works from over seventy different artists,  several pieces have been withdrawn for animal cruelty and general PR concerns.  These “concerns” have been mostly in the form of generic hate mail and tame complaints about the abhorrence people find in such a display.  Others have been quite violent in their remarks and have caused the Guggenheim the need to issue an official statement on the matter, seen below:

“Three works will not be presented as originally planned. Out of concerns for the safety of visitors, staff, and participating artists after ongoing and persistent threats of violence in reaction to the incorporation of live animals in the creation of the works, the Guggenheim has decided against including Huang Yong Ping’s two-part installation Theater of the World (1993) and The Bridge (1995) with live animals, and the video documentation of historic events in Xu Bing’s A Case Study of Transference (1994) and Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003).”

Of all the works referenced, the piece “Dogs that Cannot Touch Each Other”  has drawn the most visceral reaction from the public and is the apparent catalyst for the ire that the Guggenheim has had to endure over the past several weeks.

The piece is a video of several pairs of American Pitbulls strapped to treadmills that face each other and run continuously at one another but are unable to touch.  The video is available on YouTube should you wish to view it.  Do be warned, it is EXTREMELY DISTURBING.

While many of us cringe at the mere idea of animals being used this way, it is not the only piece pulled for backlash.  The other pieces would’ve featured multiple animals and insects either being eaten or dying from general causality of exhibition fatigue, and a New York pet store had been on contract to replenish those pieces as needed.

To answer the question of how artworks of this nature come to be, we can look at the strife caused to the citizenry of China prior to 1989 and since then the global vision dilemma of the nation.  The dogs and the other pieces that are so incendiary to us in the United States are designed to represent the idea of a country at odds with itself politically, socially, and artistically.  Ironically this particular piece was first done in a live venue in Beijing in 2003.

In an era where the east and west are experiencing modern, contemporary art creation differently, the sphere finds itself at odds with what is considered art, and what is considered deranged esoteric shock value.  In the case of the Guggenheim, for the sake of the other artists, and to allow the exhibit to move forward without a large scale PR disaster, the decision was made to remove those specific pieces that are designed to shed light on how some in this era of Chinese artists have decided to express their vision of how the past has impacted them and China as a whole.

How do we allow artists to express themselves, and bring unique, interesting pieces and exhibits to the United States, and at the same time respecting the sentiments of the public ?  At what point do we cross the censorship barrier?  Better yet, when does art stop being art?  Do we draw a line in the sand, or do we open the door for non-stop exploration into the medium and display the results as they are?  The Guggenheim has made its decision based on public backlash.  What are your thoughts?