Tag Archives: Audiences

Unlicensed Professionals

If there is one shared belief amongst history and museum professionals it’s that we do important, if at times unrecognized, work. We’re stewards of priceless, irreplaceable collections, we engage, educate, and entertain a broad range of the population. We are keepers and sharers of culture and history. Truly important work.

At least to us.

It can be difficult to know how important we are perceived to be to the general citizenry. Attendance numbers aren’t trustworthy. Besides, every museum has a fan-base (however small) which can lead us to believe we’re relevant. History books are judged by how “important” they are, not how many copies are sold. And, for both historians and the museum professionals, there’s always the belief that it’s not us; that people just don’t get how essential we really are.

One way to gauge importance is to look at how regulated a field is. Usually that comes in the form of professional licensing. Licensing advocates argue that it protects the public interest by keeping incompetent and unscrupulous individuals from working with the public. In the rather open fields of history and museum work there is no mechanism to ensure such performance. Anyone can walk on and call themselves a historian, curator, or educator. Even the incompetent and unscrupulous.

To put it another way, there are more legal requirements for a nail technician to give French manicures than than there is for a CEO to direct a museum. In museums there are laws regarding the appropriate use of our collections and money, but there is nothing governing the professionals. In the eyes of the law, our stuff is more important than our staff.

Not a license to curate.
Source.

You might be thinking, “what about the degrees needed to get the job?” A degree in a history- or museum-related field is not a license. Employers may make it a requirement for a position, but not having it does not automatically exclude anyone from claiming and being recognized as, for example, a historian. Some museum folks might point to accreditation as such oversight. However, AASLH’s accreditation is not a license or a guarantee of staff competency. Accreditation is all about collections management and governance. It’s still about the stuff.

What does all of this mean? It may be an indication of why we are an underpaid, underappreciated field. Not enough people take history and museum work seriously or believe our contributions are important enough to their (and, as will be seen, their pets’) finances, health, safety, and sex lives to try to weed out the incompetents. But evidently these fields (licensed by the State of Illinois) are:

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Your Questions Reveal All

If you have ever attended a lecture or public presentation you’ve been subjected to the dreaded Q & A session. The only real benefit of such sessions being that the speaker is absolved from having to write anything for the last fifteen to twenty minutes of his or her time.

In our attempt to stave off the creeping madness such moments threaten us with, we obviously missed a golden opportunity for an anthropological study of our peers. Fortunately, a colleague was able to focus long enough to create this study of professional and amateur questioners:

Every Question in a Q & A Session Ever


Museum Professionals Make Terrible Visitors

Museum professionals, especially curators, are fond of likening themselves to doctors. While that remains a dubious comparison, there is one way the two professions are similar: doctors make lousy patients and museum professionals make terrible visitors.

Can you spot the museum professional visiting this museum? Source.

We know how we expect museum visitors to behave and what we want from them. We want them to come in, stay behind the lines, listen to what we’re saying, and spend as much money as possible. All of which is precisely what museum folks don’t do.

It all starts at the admission counter. When it’s our turn, we walk right up to the ticket agent and ask, while handing them our business card, if there is a discount or free admission for museum professionals. Usually, they have to check with someone else, which means they need to spend valuable time on our free admission, while paying customers have to wait behind us. If there is no discount or comp for us, we turn away from the counter, grumbling under our breath that professional courtesy is being replaced by greed.

Now that we have cost the site time and money we’re free to begin our visit. Since most museum folks are bookworms, we might go right to the museum shoppe. We want to make sure we give ourselves enough time to find book titles we can purchase cheaper online later.

Once we’re done browsing, we head out into the galleries or restored village or historic house. What happens next entirely depends on the kind of experience we find ourselves in.

If we find ourselves on tour with a group of “civilians,” we hang back and don’t participate. We’re not interacting because we’re busy conducting our own impromptu visitors survey of our tourmates. At the same time we’re silently grading the guide’s ability and knowledge. In the rare cases we do participate we come dangerously close to “correcting” the guide, discomforting him or her and our tourmates. During those times when we’re the only visitor on tour, we spend more time asking about things our guide is totally unprepared to talk about, like the museum’s funding or annual visitation. We also quietly let them know we’re a museum person, which always has a calming effect on the guide.

If we find ourselves in an exhibit we’re too busy looking at everything else but what’s on display. We’re probably more curious about how the art is hung than the art. Or we’re examining the fake food to see if, in our opinion, it looks real or not. This is not always done out of criticism – sometimes we’re just looking for ideas we can steal and use at our museum.

And if we bothered to start, we stop reading exhibit labels if we find something we disagree with (we do the same thing with books, so why not labels?) If the labels annoy us enough, and we’re feeling particularly energetic, we might correct the interpretation for any visitors in earshot. We are, after all, dedicated museum professionals and we want to make sure visitors get the very best experience.

Of course there are some of us who don’t read labels at all. Some only want to see stuff. These people are curators. They don’t read because they know everything already. Others don’t read because they are busy observing visitors. These are educators, the voyeurs of the museum world.

No matter which interpretive experience we find ourselves in there are some things we do almost reflexively. Of all of visitors, we are more likely to be the ones who cross boundaries to get a better look. Thinking it will make it all better, we might be heard to say, “it’s ok, I’m a professional,” completely missing the fact that at that moment we’re ignoring our own professionalism.

As our visit proceeds we’re silently critical of the exhibits, programs, and interpretation because that’s not how we would do it. Our silence gives us time to form impressive-sounding, but likely uninformed, critiques to share later with our colleagues which say more about us than the museum we visited. Amidst all that judging, we never wonder if we simply enjoyed ourselves.

Perhaps the biggest reason we are terrible visitors is that we believe we represent the best kind of visitor, because we know how to behave in a museum.


Many Civil War Reenactments, Sadly, Are Still Not Handicap Accessible

Actually From The Onion

September 23, 1998 | ISSUE 34•08

By Claude Anderson
10th Virginia

There’s nothing quite like a Civil War reenactment. Dressing in the woolen uniform of the period, eating hardtack and bacon, and firing black-powder rifles, we are transported back to those darkest of hours when our nation was nearly rent asunder by armed conflict. Brother against brother. Father against son. Oh, what a time it was!

But, sadly, for those of us who are disabled, taking up arms and participating in the War Between The States is nearly impossible. You see, very few Civil War reenactments are accessible to the handicapped.

A few years ago, I was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. At the time, I had already been an active member of the 10th Virginia for seven years. When my fellow infantrymen heard that I’d been struck down on I-90, they rushed to my side for support, visiting me in the hospital, bringing me flowers and singing choruses of “Dixie” with me every day. It wasn’t until I joined them for the Battle of Antietam that I became aware there was a problem.

To call Antietam a disaster would be an understatement. When it came time to charge the Union Army, my wheelchair got stuck in a patch of mud, and one of McClellan’s men stabbed me to death with his bayonet while I just helplessly sat there. Then, just to add insult to injury, he tipped me over. I’ll tell you one thing–that never would have happened if that battlefield were equipped with a wheelchair ramp and some guiderails.

Things were even worse at Gettysburg. Shortly after the fighting began, I was captured by three members of the First Michigan Cavalry, who laughed as they rolled me down Culp’s Hill. I’m just glad General Pickett was over on McPherson Ridge at the time, so he didn’t see it.

At the Battle of Chickamauga, I couldn’t keep up with my fellow soldiers during a simple rifle drill, let alone during a complex about-turn-wheel-and-fire maneuver. When I discharged my Model 1863 3-band Richmond Rifled Musket, I was at knee level to most of the other men and set their breeches on fire. Mostly, though, I was slow, a situation that wasn’t helped when they insisted I fashion a historically accurate wheelchair from hickory, leather and brass.

For awhile, the other members of the 10th Virginia were polite about my problem. But sometime midway through the 1864 campaign, they began to approach me with what they thought were really good ideas. For the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, they lay me out on the field before the first shot was even fired, assigning me the role of “dead soldier.” Then, during the Battle of Charleston, they asked me to wheel around making loud artillery noises through a repainted 50-gallon steel bucket and pretend I was a cannon. How humiliating.

I realize that the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed 125 years after the surrender at Appomattox, but I am confident that Jefferson Davis would have approved of a few minor adjustments to the battlefields if it meant making the war against the North accessible for all Rebels. To this end, I propose that battlefields feature hard-packed skirmish areas suitable for access by people like me. Furthermore, Malvern Hill, Fisher’s Hill and Little Round Top should be equipped with wheelchair ramps–wooden, of course, hewn with period tools– designated for use by differently abled soldiers. And let me tell you, a couple of handrails in the latrine certainly wouldn’t hurt, either.

All I want is a chance to fight bravely for the South, just like everyone else in the 10th Virginia. After all, I don’t think of myself as handicapped–I’m handiconfederate!


I Don’t Have Time For Noncontroversial Art Exhibits

Actually From the Onion

By Keith Dans
July 16, 2008 | ISSUE 44•29

I’m a busy man. If you know me, that’s old news. Chances are, if I’m not standing in line for one controversial art exhibition, I’m on my way across town to another. It’s no easy schedule, but if I’m going to keep on top of this year’s Piss-Christs, I can’t be dillydallying. It’s got to be bim, bam, human fetus in a Coke bottle. No time for second-guessing or slowly soaking in the dynamic, geometric tension of the upcoming Cézanne retrospective. Not while there’s a guy in the East Village who’s going to vomit Cheerios into a piggy bank and smash it open with his penis.

When it comes to appreciating the diverse world of highly objectionable art, you’ve got to prioritize.

My love affair with boundary-pushing art began more than 10 years ago. Back then I had a ton of energy and a lot less responsibility. I had time for each and every marginally disgusting effrontery to common decency within a 50-mile radius. These days, my schedule is pretty packed. Take this week, for example. Monday: Abu Ghraib flip books. Tuesday: a blackface reenactment of the Reagan assassination attempt. Wednesday: drive upstate to watch an amputee roast and eat his own golden retriever. You get the picture. I swear, if my wife didn’t spend her weekends making plaster sculptures of Catholic saints being fisted by famous serial killers, I’d never see her.

Bottom line: If people aren’t protesting, becoming nauseated by, or threatening lawsuits against an artist’s work, you can look around for me, but I’m not going to be there. Using light and shadow to mythologize the pastoral and create a setting where human beings and the natural world can coexist peacefully? Best of luck to you. If you need me, I’ll be watching a heroin addict use his own HIV-positive blood to paint Hiroshima victims on the side of a school bus. You know, with all the other real art buffs.

The only thing these so called “masters” have in common is that they didn’t have the balls to shake things up. Why would I waste my time solemnly staring at a meticulously painted portrait of an aristocratic woman when I can see someone drink glow-stick fluid and vomit onto a canvas covered with pictures of Nelson Mandela?

The whole scene changes so fast, it’s nearly impossible to keep up. Used to be I’d get one urine-soaked Jesus a month and have to flesh out the rest of the days with stock S&M photography and the performance art open-mic night at NYU. These days, I can’t even turn around without knocking over something 10 times that morally offensive. Do you know how many people are displaying works mixing bodily fluids and religious symbols this week? I’d have to look on my PDA to give you an accurate count, but it’s a lot. Of course, I didn’t attend any of them, because the three to six hours I have for viewing art each day must be devoted to only the most sensibility-accosting exhibits. And shitting on things is so 1999.

You have to be on your toes, because the next big repugnant masterpiece could happen anywhere, at any time. More and more I find myself traveling to Sweden, California, or wherever Yale University is just to get a glimpse of a duck being force fed pâté-filled Oreos. But if the love for controversial art is truly in your blood, as it is in mine, there’s nothing like watching the Thai police arrest a gallery owner for displaying unflattering pictures of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. I thought the pictures were actually quite tame, myself, but the outrage and subsequent brutal beating of the artist was more delicious than many of the works I’ve seen in my own country for the past few months.

Explaining my hectic lifestyle to you has already wasted several precious moments, and in the art world, time equals flesh carvings of The Brady Bunch. Right now I’ve got to get to “America In Action”—an exhibit in the basement of an abandoned textile factory, where men dressed as African slaves are anally raped by actors posing as the founding fathers while a Go-Go’s cover band plays “We Got The Beat.” I don’t have high expectations for this particular show, because the last time I went to a showing in the same gallery, it ended up being some really tame, pop-culture schlock where a naked guy swallowed just one handful of his old baby teeth. Yawn.

If I hadn’t seen Jeff Koons get hit by a car outside the gallery, the whole night would have been a bust.


New I-75 Historical Markers

Have you ever seen a historical marker which so shakes you up that you find yourself contemplating it for the rest of the trip?

Neither have we.

However, Norm Magnusson hopes to get you to do just that. But instead of history, he is sculpting thought-provoking social commentary into blue and gold historical markers. These markers will be sprinkled about I-75 for all to see, contemplate, and argue with.  Our favorite (of the ones he had posted on the internet) is:

You can find his explanation for the project here. The official web page is here.

We at the American Hysterical Society would like to propose a “historical marker” which reads: On This Spot stands a historical marker whose greatest influence is to make sure you remember to take the next right.

Hopefully Magnusson’s historical markers will have a greater impact than the ones out there now.


What Visitors Really Want To Do


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