Weekend Work 7-29-13: The Hits Just Keep Coming

Last Tuesday started off pretty typically here at the American Hysterical Society: we quietly exhibited a new collections piece, this one an original perspective on the visiting habits of museum professionals. That was six days, 4,000+ Facebook and Twitter shares, and almost 15,000 views from 30 countries ago!

All we can say is Holy Charles Willson Peale!

So many museum folks not only got the joke, but gleefully laughed at themselves. After everything the museum field has been through these last few years, it was heartening to see people take a breath and a step back. We would like to thank all of you who laughed along with us. You are our target audience.

Of course, not everyone thought it was funny. There were some who felt we had gone too far or that we shouldn’t pick on the noble museum profession. We would like to thank those people for showing us where we went wrong:

First, it’s now clear that museum professionals are, and should be, above parody and satire. God and Mr. Rodgers aren’t, but we are.

And secondly, that some informal, but standard museum practices are not acceptable. For example, in writing our post we used anecdotal evidence, based on our own and others’ observations, to create our perception of one particular visitor demographic. Museum folks develop these anecdotal theories about visitors all the time, and then use them to justify their actions and policies. All we did was do to our colleagues what our colleagues do to visitors. That simply wasn’t fair.

Fortunately, we seem to have amused more than annoyed. Of course, perhaps we’re wrong here and the offended were the silent majority. Maybe it meant something that on Saturday our stats page presented us with this curious view:

It may be a rude gesture, but thousands of hits don’t lie.

Despite the criticism, not only do we believe we lived up to our mission, we also feel we achieved some of the ideals current in our profession. We started a host of conversations on Facebook (including the AAM’s and the Small Museum Association’s pages), on Twitter, and in the post’s comment section. One of our favorites was this one from our comments section:

Yes Val, we did forget about the illicit photography. Thanks to you and several others for reminding us. BTW, did you hook Katie up?

All museum professionals hope to contribute to the ongoing conversations about who we are, who we want to be, and what we mean (even if it is in some small, but meaningful way). We’d say that we accomplished that (in a small, but irritating way).  In fact, even if we turn out to be a one-hit-wonder (and we know some of you are hoping we will be), we are proud and humbled to have contributed even this much.

Of course, thanks to the state of the field, we’ll always have more to offer…

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About T.H. Gray

T.H. Gray is the self-appointed court jester and Dr. Demento for the history museum field. A lifelong museum professional and reenactor, he is a graduate of the prestigious Peale-Barnum Public History Museum Studies Program. Until 2011, when the AHS hired him away, he was on staff at the Benjamin Dover Memorial Museum & Swimming Pool ("Our History is All Wet!"). He remembers when museums were still about history, science, and art. BTW, all of these posts say they are by T.H. Gray because he can't turn off the byline. Credit, when due, is given. View all posts by T.H. Gray

10 responses to “Weekend Work 7-29-13: The Hits Just Keep Coming

  • Mei

    I, for one, find your observations delightful. If you happen to get an update on Katie and Val, please post!

    • T.H. Gray

      Thanks so much and yes, if we hear more from Val and Katie we’ll let you know.

      • Val

        Val is reading this and will reply (but she was in the middle of cleaning up after her herd of guinea pigs and was also very hungry when she found this…but still *found* time to laugh hysterically and share it on FB before she went back to cleaning; the six guinea pigs send their regards).

  • Laura DiSciullo

    I think the objections arose from the following points:

    1. It’s not that we’re above parody and satire. It’s that we should be above breaking the same museum rules that we enforce for our own visitors (like not touching objects, stepping over ropes, or taking photos in spaces where photography is prohibited). We understand, perhaps better than anyone else, the reasons for these rules, and it would be quite, shall we say, inconsistent for us to break rules in other museums while expecting visitors to follow them in our own museums.

    So maybe after we’re done laughing at ourselves, we can start changing our behavior and become better visitors. 🙂

    2. There are a lot of other ways to gather information besides just anecdotes. Museums can run into problems when they base their programming on an assumption that “millennials want xyz” or “people of x demographic will visit us if we do abc” without actually studying what visitors want and even asking the visitors themselves what they are looking for in a museum experience. Museum evaluation studies and visitor studies try to go beyond the anecdotes to actual conclusions supported by evidence.

  • Val

    Reblogged this on St. Val the Eccentric and commented:
    I was featured as a favorite comment here regarding a comment I made in another (completely hysterical post you should totally read) on this blog. This made my day on a day that seriously needed cheering up.

  • Val

    Let’s see…

    Well this was a [very hilarious] surprise to find on Monday night. Gave me pause though, because my childhood best friend that I’ve known since junior high died tragically and suddenly last Friday (viral meningitis, MRSE, encephalitis — horrible, “headache and disorientation” to “dead” in less than 48 hours, she never had a chance). She went to school to be a zookeeper before she finished school last May — all the way through grad school with a Masters and Teaching Credential — to be a biology teacher. Thirty-three, only child, not married, no kids, taught for one year, her whole life ahead of her…so we all thought.

    She would’ve loved that this post exists.

    The only other time something like this has happened was when the Smithsonian NMNH was posting about their iconic mounted bull elephant and mentioned that ammunition from a gun manufactured 150 years before the bull had been killed was found in the carcass, so they claimed their elephant coould be up to 150 years old.

    An elephant’s age is restricted by its teeth — they have several sets in their lifetime, but when their last set wears out they die (usually around sixty) if something else hasn’t killed them beforehand. Additionally, when a gun was manfactured doesn’t mean it was fired in that same time period, firearms in remote locations from where they were manufactured have a way of hanging around for tens of decades because people keep using the best technology they have. I asked them if they had the skull, that would be the only sure way to determine age.

    It went viral with replies of “She’s right,” and they relented (and they lost the skull).

    So…

    First of all, I never take illegal photographs. I consider myself a photographer, and I also like to use some of what I photograph on social media. I always check museum and gallery policies. No flash is allowed at the Getty and LACMA unless specifically posted. I often take a photo of the label so I remember what’s what later. If your label is stupid or just plain wrong, that’s where I will put it on social networking as a #FAIL. When you cite the wrong Bible characters in a story on a label that is clearly contradicted by the actual manuscript, especially when you are the Getty, that deserves a #FAIL.

    As for the Natural History Museum thing (a generally wonderful place, you should go, but before you do reserve ticket for the Space Shuttle Endeavor at the California Science Center next door; also, take the Metro, it’s easy and you get a discount at the NHM when you do).

    The painting in question is part of a set of paintings on the second floor of the rotunda, just through the corridor from the case containing the fossils of the prehistoric birds mounted next to the skeletons of contemporary birds. There is a whole set of paintings, but this one caught my eye.

    The painting depicted a group of sauropods — chilling in a theoretical fakey Jurassic swamp — with labels citing them as Brontosaurus. Yeah…Brontosaurus and the whole swamp thing are about as accurate as tail-dragging Tyrannosaurus Rex mounted sitting up like pathetic begging dogs. It surprised me to find it there. Everything else is mounted beautifully and is very well done…and then old-school swamp dinos displayed without apology.

    And if anyone knows who is responsible for the travesty — the absolute crime — that is the second floor of the Art of the Americas building at LACMA (think famous American art displayed like the poster store at the mall — crowded, to the ceiling, badly lit with glare that inhibits the ability to actually see the paintings at all in many instances), please let the world know. For the love of everything sacred and beautiful, people who love art (especially John Singer Sargent) should riot over this…or sue (it’s Los Angeles, can’t we do both?).

    • T.H. Gray

      Val,

      Our sincerest condolences on the loss of your friend. We’re glad that we could surprise and amuse you, even a little bit.

      Thanks for sharing your stories and for taking such interest in what museums say and do. We are, after all, in it for the attention.

      Admittedly, we’ve never been to LACMA, but it sounds like it was built by a starchitect. And we’d have to say, art folks are more likely to litigate than rampage.

      • Val

        LACMA’s great…or was. The last ticketed exhibition that was worth my time was Caravaggio and His Legacy. They cut hours, cut programming, and cut the quality of the multi-museum touring stuff in exchange for a lot of 20th c. — in a word — well, pick your favorite word for garbage or excrement. And then — to add insult to injury — they bought MOCA.

        That collection is the public property of the citizens of Los Angeles, you’ve been denying us access to it while crying “cutbacks,” and then you went shopping?!?!?!?!”

        Pop art or conceptual art? No. I’m a pretty ecclectic person, but if my primary question is “How completely strung-out on drugs would you have to be to think this is art?” and the argument for why it is art requires twenty minutes, no, sorry, you’ve lost me.

        I don’t know who is curating and administrating out there these days, but it’s going downhill for lack of balance in what is exhibited, for declining quality of special exhibitions, and for apparent insanity in the way paintings are displayed. They have a world-class collection, but I’m starting to feel like — as a museum, as far as “class” goes? Their bra straps are showing.

        It kills me though, their Sargent is as nice or nicer than the saucy one out at the prohibitively expensive Huntington (the Huntingon also — ironically — near-impossible to get to on public transit), and much nicer than the one the Getty presently has on loan from a private collection…and yet you’d have to be a giraffe with sunglasses to see it. Maybe they just got tired of me sitting on the floor accross the room on Friday nights to look at them and wait for them to walk out of the painting? (they look like they could, Sargent’s spooky like that)

        If you’re ever in L.A. there are many fine museums. Don’t miss the Autry National Center (where I was trying to work for awhile), the Getty Villa is great for its grounds and beautiful location. Kidspace in Pasadena is fantastic. Don’t miss the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Get timed tickets for the space shuttle and do both museums at Exposition Park. There are others, still exploring. That is my game actually: how much fun can I have in Los Angeles for free with a $5 Metro Day Pass?

        As it turns out, quite a lot.

    • Katie

      Hi Val,

      I am very sorry to hear about your friend.

      Yes I know what you are writing about. The label in question is from a painting titled “Brontosaurus” by Charles Knight. For those of you who don’t know, Charles Knight (1874-1953) is an American painter who got his start at the American Museum of Natural History as a 5 year old child drawing the taxidermy animals. He later started his career as an illustrator and became well-known for his scientific illustrations. He is still known for his work by many paleontologists.

      Knight painted that series in 1946 when “brontosaurus” was considered correct. While the label does not specifically address the change in proper dinosaur names, it does state that the painting “…depicts the traditional notion that sauropods (long-necked dinosaurs) had to live a mainly aquatic existence to support their enormous body size. Yet evidence from footprints, bone anatomy, and fossil-bearing sediments indicates that these animals could walk on dry land.” A quick trip into the adjoining Dino Hall will bring you to our Mamenchisaurus and the label informing the visitor that this dinosaur is a sauropod which is a long-necked dinosaur and these dinosaurs are further known as either “Mamenchisaurus” or “Argentinosaurus.” Also found next to the sauropod label is the note that “We interpret fossils based on our understanding at the time.” In other words, stay tuned as this hall will evolve as research evolves.

      Knight’s paintings are fantasy, and there are other paintings by him that are not quite accurate either, but Knight was first and foremost and artist not a scientist. And as previously stated there has been much advancement in science. This series was completed 67 years ago. I think the difference between what was known then versus now just further adds to the “charm” of his paintings.

      Along with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, you can also see Knight’s paintings at the Field Museum, and of course at the American Museum where it all began.

      Take care,
      Katie

      • Val

        Yes, seriously, Dino Hall rocks. I still haven’t decided if I like their plesiosaur (pregnant!) or Harvard’s (near-perfect and flying out of the wall) better.

        Knight’s work is lovely, but dated, which is why I was surprised to find it.

        The real palentological nightmare is <The Land Before Time movies.

        I’m always mindful of how dino fossils are displayed, because what is hard to grasp for many is how long dinosaurs ruled the planet. Dino Hall is more mindful than some of grouping by period and does a really good job of laying things out in an engaging and informative way. The one I grew up with was Albuquerque’s Museum of Natural History (small, but with some seriously cool stuff). Other museums reference the size of Seismosaurus??? They have a leg.

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