Critiquing “A More Perfect Union”

I’m not new to Smithsonian’s online exhibit and I did a brief review of their exhibit Cover Art a few weeks ago. This week I checked out a older online exhibit from Smithsonian Institute titled A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans & U.S. Constitution.

I chose this exhibit because since the beginning of my college career I have been interested in immigration to the United States. I’ve typically been interested in Latino immigration to the US in the 20th century (particularly Mexican) and Chinese immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. I was interested in how A More Perfect Union to see how it dealt with the less than positive or comfortable experiences of Japanese immigrants. The exhibit originally toured from 1995 – 1998 but made a return because the institute felt that after the September 11th attacks that the story still had resonance, and that is absolutely true.

A More Perfect Union

The online exhibit roughly covers the period from 1900 to 1980 and covers the experiences farming, forming communities, businesses, racism/xenophobia, removal to internment camps, and the aftermath. The exhibit is focused on how informal prejudice became institutionalized racism. It is a touchy subject that hasn’t always been something that Japanese Americans themselves have wanted to discuss. The overall exhibit provides a well rounded breadth of featured artifacts which users can click on and see larger with description. The overall exhibit has a soundtrack that I eventually turned off because I found it a little irritating but I can understand how it could be used to create atmosphere (important considering this is an online exhibit). I enjoyed the audio clips that you could listen to for introductory text and the oral history accounts which literally allow for people to speak for themselves.

There is a need for a few adjustments and a more updated appearance. My first issue was the visual size of the exhibit, the presentation does into take up the whole web page space which makes the images and text a bit small. I do enjoy the ability for the user to decide on their own pace and could choose what subject to explore. Otherwise, A More Perfect Union has a predetermined path for visitors. I enjoyed enlarging photos of artifacts but I would suggest that the accompanying text provide more context on how some artifacts are connected to the subject. For instance, there are advertisements from fruit companies and a person would have to assume these were companies that many Japanese immigrants worked for. A bit more context and visual updating could help with this exhibit that I think discusses a facet of immigration to the US that doesn’t get as much coverage some other immigration experiences (for example: Italian, Irish, etc.). I would love to see the exhibit refashioned while still featuring many of the intriguing artifacts and stories. It would also be nice to be able to hear more oral testimonies. My final praise for the exhibit is the provided space for visitors to provide reflections and personal stories; this is one of the most valuable contributions of the site.

This site is most appropriate for any visitor age 12+ and it would also be great for use in educational settings.

Geeking Out Over Break

This week I am enjoying my brief spring break. While I might be taking a short break from school that doesn’t mean that I’ve taken a break from history. Here are three history-based interests that I’ve been interested in this week.

1. American Cool at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery
Recently, while doing a job search (scary!), I happened across the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery website. They now have an exhibit American Cool, which runs from February 7 to September 7, 2014, which chronicles the origins and generational changes in the concept of being “cool” through the medium of portraiture. You may say: “What does the Smithsonian know about ‘cool’?” But I think they have a concise definition on their website: “To be cool means to exude the aura of something new and uncontainable. Cool is the opposite of innocence or virtue. Someone cool has a charismatic edge and a dark side. Cool is an earned form of individuality.” Seems like a….”cool” definition. The exhibition features portraits of Americans from Frederick Douglass to Fred Astaire, Billie Holiday to Marvin Gaye, Debbie Harry, and Prince. The full exhibition list mostly includes entertainers and a racially mixed grouping (the list has a hefty amount of portraits of African Americans and Bruce Lee is the exhibit’s only Asian person in the group). This is exciting, right? Each set of portraits is arranged by generation and I’m sure docent-led tours would provide a great learning experience. Oh and just in case you don’t think two curators got the exhibit of 100 coolest Americans right there is also alternate list and a comment book at the exhibit. I think I will have to get myself to Washington D.C. this summer. Check out the website’s page here.

Marlon Brando, Philippe Halsman, 1950. Photo: © Philippe Halsman Archive

2. Cover Art: The Time Collection at the National Portrait Gallery

Until I can make it to the National Portrait Gallery, I also noticed an online exhibit they have that features Time magazine covers with selections spanning from 1923 to the 1970s. In 1978, Time donated 800 pieces of cover art to the National Portrait Gallery and now the collection has expanded to 2,000 pieces. Cover Art focuses on some of the notable personalities and artwork featured by the magazine. I enjoyed the straightforward and visually stimulating presentation. The online exhibit has an introduction and after that viewers can pick cover artwork to learn more about. Some selections even have audio to accompany interpretation including the cover art depecting Marie Callas, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King Jr. If viewers are looking for a thematic grouping of images Cover Art features five themes such as “Man of the Year” (which does feature or discuss two notable female exceptions) and “Civil Rights”. Check it out here.

Ok, there is more than two history-based things I’ve been looking at this spring break.

Credit: History Channel

Call it a guilty pleasure but I don’t feel guilty. I am obsessed and deeply invested in the History Channel series Vikings . Yes, I know there are many historians’ critiques of History Channel (or just “History” as they call themselves today) and their abandonment of history content on television. I agree with those critiques especially as someone raised on their earlier days of history documentaries. History does however sponsor history related institutions and organizations. Vikings is about the legendary Ragnar Lothbrook, his wife shield maiden Lagertha, and his fictional brother Rollo and a few other main characters. I know Vikings has its own historical inaccuracies and I simply don’t care. Yep, I said it. Unfortunately, the intricacies of history cannot be totally recreated on television or film, heck historians can’t recreate the past. That being said, the show seems to be a entertaining effort but I’m no Scandinavian history expert. However, I do think that the show is attempting to depict the Viking people in a different and more realistic way while also accommodating some audience expectations of Vikings as well as incorporating Norse sagas or epics. That’s a job and a half. The show is also trying to explore Norse religion and Christianity of the period. I appreciate the magic realism, Travis Fimmel’s blue eyes, and the character Lagertha’s awesomeness. Give it a try.

Feel free to share in my spring break history geek moments.

The (Un)Glamorous Life: Behind the Scenes at the Field Museum

I watched the Indiana Jones films a number of times as a kid (teen and young adult) and honestly I can say they were partially responsible for my love affair with history. Watching the movies also led me to try out deciphering hieroglyphics (at the ripe age of 10 or 11) and to attempt grabbing a hat from under a closing garage door — but I digress. Thank you George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford. For those who don’t know, the character Indiana Jones is an archaeologist and professor who also does fieldwork, like any archaeologist or anthropologist, but he doesn’t uncover any old artifacts. No.  Jones escapes the lecture halls and dusty libraries to recover the…. oh I don’t know — THE HOLY GRAIL! Meanwhile  he destroys the Nazis and recovers artifacts while proclaiming “This belongs in a museum!” Could that statement have been my first indoctrination lesson in public history/museum studies? Perhaps.

Presented here are some photos from the glamorous office space museum professionals (curators, anthropologists, exhibit designers, etc.) occupy at the Field Museum. Come with me into world that smells like a hundred year old books and a teeny bit like your 8th grade biology class.

A display case with information about Malvina Hoffman, famous sculptress who recorded, in bronze sculpture, people from around the world. Many of the sculptures  in the  museum and were created in 1930.

A display case with information about Malvina Hoffman, famous sculptress who recorded, in bronze sculpture, people from around the world. Many of the sculptures in the museum and were created in 1930.

Close up picture of sculpture of a woman from India next to the real woman who modeled for the bust. Comparing pictures of the real people with their busts raises questions about  anthropological and cultural attitudes of the time.

Close up picture of sculpture of a woman from India next to the real woman who modeled for the bust. Comparing pictures of the real people with their busts raises questions about anthropological and cultural attitudes of the time.

Map to get around the massive 3rd floor which I used to get lost in.

Map to get around the massive 3rd floor which I used to get lost in.

Doorway to a small section of the anthropology department.

Doorway to a small section of the anthropology department.

This is as close as it gets to anything I imagine a 1930s museum office looked like. Indiana Jones could have worked here, right (without the fax of course)?

This is as close as it gets to anything I imagine a 1930s museum office looked like. Indiana Jones could have worked here, right (without the fax of course)?

The Ancient Americas lab also known as my workspace.  On the wall a map of an area in Peru and on the table a map of the Calumet Region.

The Ancient Americas lab also known as my workspace. On the wall a map of an area in Peru and on the table a map of the Calumet Region.

Poster reads: " ¡Alto al Hauqeo! Salvemos Nuestro Patrimonio Cultural" Translation: "Stop Huaqueo (from Quecha for looting of sacred places)!: Save Our Cultural Heritage"

Poster reads: ” ¡Alto al Hauqeo! Salvemos Nuestro Patrimonio Cultural”
Translation:
“Stop Huaqueo (from Quecha for looting of sacred places)!: Save Our Cultural Heritage”

Stairway to the mysterious fourth floor, Exhibitions. Look to the top right for some curation of dinosaurs.

Stairway to the mysterious fourth floor, Exhibitions. Look to the top right for some curation of dinosaurs.

A zoological exhibit near my workspace.

A zoological exhibit near my workspace.

A scientific drawing of a very angry badger by one the women's bathrooms.

A scientific drawing of a very angry badger by one the women’s bathrooms.

What I call the "bird library" which is much like what it sounds.; numerous archives of preserved dead birds. Mmm the smell of formaldehyde in the morning.

What I call the “bird library” which is much like what it sounds.; numerous archives of preserved dead birds. Mmm the smell of formaldehyde in the morning.

A wall of anthropology curators from the beginning of the Field Museum to the current one. The is one woman in there.

A wall of anthropology curators from the beginning of the Field Museum to the current one. The is one woman in there.

What is known as "wall of wood" which is a hallway lined with samples of wood from around the world with labels.

What is known as “wall of wood” which is a hallway lined with samples of wood from around the world with labels.

Part of the in-house library.

Part of the in-house library.

Beautiful woodcarving from Asia in the library entrance way.

Beautiful woodcarving from Asia in the library entrance way.

And this is Bushman, the guy I get to see everyday when I get on or of the elevator.

And this is Bushman, the guy I get to see everyday when I get on or of the elevator.

Restoring Earth: Exhibit Review

Before I started my internship I had the opportunity to see the Restoring Earth exhibit in the Abbott Hall of Conservation at the Field Museum. The exhibit is directly connected to the department known as The Action Center (formerly Environment, Culture, and Conservation [ECCo]) which I am an intern for. Although I am an intern at the museum now I can safely say that my review is not influenced by this.That’s my little disclaimer.

 I do not own photgraph.

Visitors explore exhibit.

Restoring Earth is now a permanent exhibit at the Field which opened in November 2011.  Restoring Earth exhibit is situated on the upper level of the Field Museum in its Abbott Hall of Conservation.  The exhibit chronicles the museum’s staff efforts to conserve the environment abroad  and locally.  Immediately, upon entering the hall the exhibit takes a decidedly  more modern approach to its exhibit design (admittedly the Field Museum suffers from stagnation in its older permanent exhibits).  The design uses  bold color, artistic nature photography, sleek construction, and use of some natural sustainable materials.  Restoring Earth uses four main sections. Each section is clearly labeled with a straightforward and intriguing title with metal lettering on bright walls.  The exhibit thoroughly uses mixed media employing video, objects, photographs, text, and interactive content.

The first section serves as an introduction into the process and organization of involved in putting researchers into the field. Cases display biologists’ scribbled notebooks, hooks used to coral snakes, and other tools used by researchers. On the opposite side is a small theater area; a series of three clips are projected on to three walls. The length of each clip (4, 8, and 5 1/2 minutes) was conveniently listed in the seating area for guests.  Carved logs are the seating in the theater area. The videos, along with surrounding text, explain that three teams were used to research the Andes-Amazon region: “advance team” which prepared trails and camp sites, “biological team” went into the field for three weeks to take inventory of plant and animal life, and “social team” which worked with the surrounding community to access their use of the land.

Before the visitor reaches the second section they are invited to use a touch screen interactive installation that allows further explore the experiences of the three teams. I used this easy to use interactive and some high school students did as well but were quick to move on (students were prompted to move on by other students who were not engaged).  “Saving the Rainforest — by using it” is the title of the second section which highlights how two indigenous cultures use their natural resources in an environmentally responsible manner. The Maijuna are featured, in text and photos, for their changes in harvesting the Aguaje tree.  Another panel reads: “The Shipibo crafting a living from the rainforest” and corresponds with objects and photos demonstrating the various crafts and art produced from renewable forest resources, products that are sold for profit. The products are sold instead of lumber thus leading to better use of natural resources while helping the local ecosystem. The third section “Reefs and Islands — more to discover, more to protect” is located in a semi-enclosed area which focuses mostly on a vast collection of mollusks, traditionally displayed. An interactive part allows guests to explore a sediment sample from the Florida Keys with a microscope while looking for specified mollusks.

As the visitor proceeds through the open yet clearly defined area a bright green wall states: “Museum collections create a library of life”. The quote contributed to the attitude the exhibit was trying to create: museum collections are about more than just curiosities or objects. The last section, “Conservation is collaboration”, focused particularly on conservation, food production and climate change in Chicago. This section featured multiple interactive video displays that featured five short (less than three minutes) and entertaining videos each, a theme for each one. For example one video discussed urban gardening (including keeping chickens) or another discussed how eating meat effects the environment. Some videos were of real people and environments while others were animated. Guests could touch the screen and choose what they would like to learn more about.  A smaller subsection focused on fire as a part of conservation and replenishing natural environments. This section was prominently funded by Bank of America, but it was unclear if the whole exhibit was funded by them.

Overall, Restoring Earth is a fresh exhibit especially for the Field Museum. It takes on a different feel from the majority of the museum.  the content of the exhibit is accessible to visitors ranging from middle school students to adults and Restoring Earth allows for free movement and various opportunities to choose information. The information is particularly enlightening to people who are not particularly knowledgeable about environmentalism or conservation efforts abroad and in urban landscapes such as Chicago. Those who have more education in the field may find information too simple for them but nevertheless it could be useful to them to see the process the museum’s Action Center uses in conservation.

As a visitor I had a deep sense that this exhibit was about demonstrating the usefulness of teamwork on the part of researchers and community members. Much of the introductory part of the exhibit is about the what researchers actually do. Restoring Earth also is about results; research and fieldwork is directly connected to real world actions and conservation. For example, one panel about South America reads: “21.9 million acres protected in 11 years”. Restoring Earth is useful in educating the public about what conservation is and what it does while give its audience a message that is not heavy-handed but instead intriguing and maybe even inspiring.

Read what the Field Museum has to say about its own exhibit, Restoring Earth.

Meet Me at the Maori House

Photo courtesy of Field Museum

Photo courtesy of Field Museum

I wanted to stop by and share with you an interesting experience I had at the Field Museum two Wednesdays ago. As part of my internship, my fellow interns and I along with are supervisors have a weekly meeting on Wednesdays. After our meeting on the 10th, all of us interns came away with are weekly assignments and focus for the rest of the week. That is when one of our supervisors told us that a group of high school students would be meeting with staff of the anthropology department and the meeting would take place at the Maori House (formally Maori Meeting House, Ruatepupuke II). The students were in a program that was for teens from Bronzeville and Pilsen which are African American and Mexican American neighborhoods, respectively.

The Maori House is an permanent exhibit at the Field Museum near the museum’s south Pacific exhibition. The Maori from New Zealand, whom this meeting house formerly belongs to, allowed the museum to keep it even though the meeting house is a place of great importance to their heritage. The place is representative of their honored ancestors, one of which is Ruatepupuke. Our supervisor said that using the Maori House as a gathering place was a part of the agreement made with Maori. This is when we found out that there would be a ceremony held at the Maori House and there would be singing. He did mention that while the ceremony is similar to the ritual that Maori used when new people came into their territory, we were not at all suppose to be pretending to be Maori. Suddenly our internship turned into choir practice as we worked on a song to offer to our visitors (“Simple Gifts” a Shaker hymn, an interesting choice).

When the time came to meet at the Maori House, all of the interns realized how serious this ceremony was. Another anthropologist (who expertise is definitely in this area) led us in what to do, where to stand, and what not to do. We also found out that the high school group had prepared for the ceremony in return. At the end of the ceremony everyone joined together and we processed through the Maori House, solemnly touching each carving inside the meeting house which represented an ancestor. When I made it half way around the house, suddenly a loud chant broke out. There were two visitors to the museum at the house entryway. We found out that the couple was from New Zealand and that man who was chanting just happened to know a Maori blessing.

What turned out to be a little silly to me and other interns ended up being a meaningful gesture between the museum staff and the high school students. After the ceremony we went outside and shared snacks. It was a good time to hear what the teens were experiencing that summer. Unfortunately, we never learned the name of the program they were in but nevertheless it turned out to be a learning experience for everyone.