Archive for the ‘Public Art’ Category

Something came across my desktop today that I had to share. It touches on everything I care about: the power of story, the way that people inhabit and experience cities, museums, creative practice, how objects can be reframed to shine a spotlight on their meaning and emotion, and simple human kindness. In this case the story in question is that of Loes Veenstra, the city is Rotterdam, the museum is Museum Rotterdam, the creative practice is knitting, the objects are sweaters—many, many sweaters—and the kindness comes from neighbors.

Loes Veenstra spent the last 60 years compulsively knitting sweaters, until she had amassed 550 of them. They were never worn—each time she finished one she would put it in a box in her apartment and start another. Last year folks from Museum Rotterdam discovered her collection and asked if they could exhibit it as part of a project on her neighborhood, Carnisse. Then artist Christien Meindertsma got involved, and low and behold one day this happened, on the street outside Veenstra’s home:

I’ve seen photos online of the exhibition of the sweaters, and that’s beautiful too—a sea of colorful forms, suspended from the ceiling like a sculptural installation. But this video—it’s something different, something much more. First, the sweaters are worn. Standard museum practice is that nobody gets to touch the objects—they must be protected and preserved. But see what happens when these sweaters are put on bodies and come to life: they are human kindness animated. And second, the sweaters come to life not in the exhibition gallery but on a residential street. In this context—in this sense of place—they become an instrument of community.

I think a lot about the hyperlocal experience—what it means to know every nook and cranny of a five-block square, how each of us is an informal historian, logging the small changes that happen each day in our neighborhoods. We come to learn a lot about our neighbors, and on the other hand, there is always more to learn. I am imagining how this flash mob has changed the hyperlocal history of Carnissestraat—not just for Loes Veenstra but for all her neighbors who participated in and witnessed it. And I am imagining what it would be like if museums’ treatment of objects were always this powerful. Imagine me and you, so happy together.

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Comment Board Memorial Location 3

A lot has happened since I wrote my post about the Boston Marathon bombings. It’s time for an update.

The bombing site reopened to the public on Wednesday, April 22 24, a week ago today. I’ve walked the Back Bay twice since then and found it so very comforting to see people out on the streets. People are the lifeblood of any city, and their absence in and around Copley Square the week of the bombings was even more jarring to me than the sight of soldiers and armored jeeps in front of the Boston Public Library. On both Thursday the 25th and Tuesday the 30th Copley was bursting with people of all stripes—office workers, buskers, skate punks, dandies, tourists, runners, campaign volunteers, dog walkers, moms with strollers. Bostonians are trying hard to get back to normal, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not. On both walks I let myself get lost in the crowd; that’s what normal means to me.

I have paid four visits to the makeshift bombing memorial: April 20, 22, 25, and 30. Each time I have taken photos to document both the objects left there and the ways people are interacting with the memorial. Each time it has changed significantly since my last visit. It keeps getting bigger, of course. Twice it has changed location. Location 1 was in the middle of the intersection of Boylston and Berkeley, up against the police barricade that blocked Boylston to all traffic:


In anticipation of reopening the crime scene, it moved about 50 feet to Location 2, against the side of a building at that same intersection:

Memorial Location 2

Then, perhaps when it became clear this public ritual needed a space befitting its importance to the city, Location 3 was organized at the north side of Copley Square itself:

Memorial Location 3

Locations 1 and 2 felt cold and hard—nothing but concrete and police barriers against a backdrop devoid of people. By contrast Location 3 feels much more human. It’s a large, U-shaped enclosure on the edge of the Copley lawn, an outdoor room of sorts. Ten of the Copley trees are inside the enclosure, and many of the signs and mementos people have left are propped against their trunks or hanging from their branches, with pathways in between. People are out and about again, and they circulate through the memorial, moving from tree to tree, like visitors at an exhibition. Memorial 3 feels like the right place, a place at the heart of the city.

At Location 1 people left their objects themselves, with no particular logic other than where they could find available space. But when volunteers moved everything to Location 2, they organized the memorial. Three white crosses, one each for Lu Lingzi, Martin Richard, and Krystle Campbell, became more clearly the centerpiece of the memorial. Around them, flowers were placed with flowers, stuffed animals with stuffed animals, and shoes with shoes. When the memorial moved a second time, this order was maintained and expanded. As someone who studies cities, I find the most striking addition at Location 3 to be the symbols of Boston’s membership in the global sisterhood of cities—”Istanbul Stands with Boston,” “Stay Strong –Miami,” “Nashville Believes in Boston”—but there is much more. There are several large comment boards people can sign. There are many, many shoes. There is a hat section and a flag section.

Which leads me to one of the most important parts of the memorial: its unofficial caretaker, Kevin Brown. He is not the only or the first person to tend the memorial but he has been its most enduring volunteer.

Kevin Brown Memorial Location 1

A carpenter from Brockton, he has been there during three of my four visits. At Location 1, he and another volunteer were handing out single roses for the children in the crowd to add to the memorial, to give them a way of actively participating in the ritual. At Location 2, which blocked public access to the memorial much more formally than Location 1, mourners had to pass their mementos across the police barrier for Brown to place, and he obliged repeatedly and good-naturedly, honoring requests for him to pose for photographs, answering questions, and following instructions like “please place this around the neck of the black stuffed dog.” He told me volunteers were organizing that night, in advance of the storms predicted for Tuesday the 23rd, to bag anything that would get damaged by water. He told me some of the marathon medals had been stolen so they had started setting all the medals aside for safekeeping. He told me he watched a female runner walk up to the memorial, take off her shoes, add them to the pile, and walk away barefoot. He told me he was going to make a fourth cross for Sean Collier. Not only was he the citizen curator of Location 2, he was also its docent; guiding people through the mourning ritual. Kevin Brown’s role at Location 3 on Copley Square is different. Because the memorial has grown so big that you can walk around in it, you could miss Brown if you didn’t know to look for him. He has a chair now. I watched him make a round to water all the potted plants, and then another round to light all the candles (it was 6 pm). I was glad to see him.

Kevin Brown Lights Candles Memorial Location 3

I want to pay particular attention to Kevin Brown because in so many ways he is my counterpart and colleague, even if we don’t really know each other. He quickly and spontaneously took up a role at this memorial that I have trained for and practiced for more than 15 years. While he has been out there in the sun and rain every day, those of us in Boston’s museum and archive community—the professionals—have been moving more slowly. Granted, there are reasons we are moving slowly. The stakes are high when you’re talking about caring for things in perpetuity and we want to do this right (or as close to right as we can). We have indeed made some progress. We have been systematically checking in with each institution in the area, and our list of whether and what each one plans to collect is nearly complete (most notably, at Mayor Menino’s direction, the Boston City Archives will preserve items from the memorial). Historic New England has offered its fumigation bubble to ensure that bombing-related artifacts are pest-free before they are introduced into existing collections. We have made contact with folks at the 9/11 Memorial who have offered valuable advice and ongoing support. We are trying to organize pro bono legal counsel to advise on all manner of issues, from how Massachusetts abandoned property laws will affect collecting to release forms for oral histories.

I remain concerned that we still have not identified homes for all of the material that should be collected from this event. Boston deserves a thoughtful, compelling, and flawlessly executed exhibition of this material on the one-year anniversary of the bombings—to help Bostonians process their emotions and memories and transform them into some sort of positive civic engagement for the city. But there is so much work to be done in order to tell this story—and tell it well—I remain concerned about that too. One thing I am not concerned about is Kevin Brown. This week Kevin Brown is my curatorial hero. This week Kevin Brown is the heart at the heart of Boston.

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There’s a neighborhood community center four blocks from my house in Boston, and a few times a week I go there to use the exercise machines. There’s only one of each type of machine and there are no TVs or other gym amenities, but that’s fine with me—the community center has what I need, and I like the range of people I run into there, from the four-year-old daycare class looking for a warm indoor spot to run around, to the weekly seniors basketball game.

The exercise machines sit along the edge of the indoor track, which looks down on the basketball court. The walls on this level are awash in motivational signs—everything from Ellen Degeneres quotes to cartoons of cats hanging from trees. Here are a few examples:

When I first started making regular trips to the community center I found the signs well-intentioned but overwhelming. Although the messages create a “we’re all in this together” atmosphere, the arrangement and sheer volume meant my eyes would cast about continuously with nowhere to land. Now that I have settled into the place I just look at my kindle and screen them out.

Recently I noticed there’s a new kind of sign. There are structural poles ringing the track, and someone divided a long-form joke into 12 parts and hung each part on one of the poles. That means as you’re jogging around the track you can read a little of the joke at a time, finally reaching the punch line when you’ve finished a lap. What’s more, the joke changes on a regular basis. So now when I show up for my exercise I make a habit of checking for a new joke:

My experience at the community center has me thinking about museum pop-up projects. Pop-up projects are a relatively new thing for museums; in fact it’s one of the seven trends featured in the Center for the Future of Museums’ recently released TrendsWatch 2012. Sometimes an exhibition “pops up” at a temporary location inside an empty storefront or otherwise available space. The San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design has been getting some press recently for creating such exhibitions. But pop-up projects don’t have to be indoors, and they don’t have to look like traditional exhibitions either. For the Westminster Stories project, the Museum on Site put interpretive labels on street furniture, urban trees, sidewalks, buildings, and even people as a weekend-long pop-up event along a two-block stretch of Westminster Street in downtown Providence. The If This House Could Talk project enlists the help of local residents to pop up temporary historical markers in the front yards of homes and businesses in Cambridge, MA, for a few weeks each October. In Hamburg, Germany, the Fussnote Project spraypainted historical markers related to the city’s Nazi-era history on sidewalks.

I’m particularly interested in the outdoor version of pop-ups as a tool for city museums. Outdoor pop-up projects were made for cities, where the population density means they are sure to draw a crowd. And what better subject matter for pop-ups than urban history, because out on the streets and in neighborhoods it can help people form deeper personal connections to the places where they live and work. Moreover, bringing urban history to people in outdoor public spaces with such a flexible, changing format gives city museums the opportunity to actively and creatively contribute to the vibrancy of city life instead of merely documenting it after the fact.

What does all of this have to do with the signs at the community center? Those signs help me understand that:

1. Pop-ups work because they aren’t permanent. The joke signs on the poles are so much more interesting to me because they change regularly. I want to make sure I catch each new joke before it goes away. Those bronze historical markers we’ve been putting up all over our cities for years? They certainly serve a purpose, but when we know they will always be there they are easy to ignore. Consider the case of Robot Supply & Repair in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. It sells—you guessed it, robots and robot stuff—to benefit 826 Michigan, a non-profit writing and tutoring center for kids. Roughly once a month a different robot tableau debuts in the Robot Supply front window. Here’s one of a robot family at home:

Via letssavemichigan.com

Other tableaus have included a robot marriage proposal, a robot travel agency, and a robot birthday party. When I lived in Ann Arbor and walked several times a week between my co-working space on Main Street and the bus depot on 4th Avenue, I planned my route to pass Robot Supply & Repair and check if there was a new window display. For regulars, who know a neighborhood well, a change like this can be the difference between a boring commute (or trip to the grocery store, or exercise session) where we are disengaged with the world around us, and an interesting one where space becomes place.

2. Pop-ups work because they are somewhere unexpected, or they involve an unexpected format. In a space overflowing with messaging, the poles lining the community center track were new territory. I had screened out all the motivational signs taped to the walls, much the way we screen out the advertising in places like Times Square or in the borders of our Google searches. But the jokes caught my eye because I wasn’t used to seeing content on the poles. Similarly, I think part of the reason Cambridge’s If This House Could Talk and Hamburg’s Fussnote Project drew attention is because the format—hand-written signs in front yards or stenciled and spraypainted text—was unexpected.

Here’s another example. Last year I was walking along the sidewalk in Jamaica Plain, the neighborhood next door to mine, and I noticed a blue line on the sidewalk:

At first I thought someone had come along with a leaky can of paint, but it became clear that this was no accidental line. It stretched on Centre/South Street all the way from Green Street to St. Mark in one smooth, continuous line. I saw two different families with young kids who were just as captivated by the mysterious line as I was: what did it mean? Why was it there? Should we follow it? I’ve never been able to find out who made the line and what his/her intent was, but I’ve thought a lot about its potential as a delivery format.

3. Pop-ups work because they are in people’s everyday path. I don’t have to go out of my way to read the jokes, or see the Robot Supply window, or find the blue line; they appear right in front of me in the course of my normal routine. Don’t get me wrong—visits to the museum are important too, especially if the experience is visitor-centered and memorable. Such visits are generally planned, which can make them feel like anticipated, special events. But if the point is to enrich the lives of as many people as possible, why not also bring the content directly to those people, in high-trafficked outdoor spaces? A serendipitous encounter inserted into the everyday can be just as memorable—and meaningful—as the special event.

4. Some of the best pop-up projects are cheap and low-tech. All of the work I have referenced in this post has been inexpensive and relatively quick and easy to execute. When the content is intentionally so temporary, it can be made on the office laser printer. By contrast, exhibitions inside the museum can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and months or years of planning; consequently in many institutions the content doesn’t change very often. Museums need to be doing a lot more experimenting if they are ever going to figure out how to increase their public value. Pop-up projects enable experimentation by minimizing cost—who cares that it wasn’t 100% perfect the first time if it only costs $100 and can be improved when you try it again in a different neighborhood?

5. Pop-ups work when they happen on people’s own terms. Yesterday I watched a fellow community center exerciser take a close-up photo of one of the motivational signs. Clearly it meant something to her and she wanted to remember it. There’s room for her to take the signs to heart and for me to screen out all but the jokes, and probably even for any of us to actively participate by suggesting new signs to hang up, because no one is standing there telling us there’s a specific way to behave.

Another thing that pops up in outdoor public spaces is the charity solicitor—Save the Children or Greenpeace or Oxfam. Regardless of whether or not I support these organizations, I find it intrusive to be stopped on the street and put on the spot about donating. I like it when pop-up projects leave room for people to make their own choices about whether and how much to engage with the content.

6. A little narrative never hurts. Those long-form jokes are stories, meted out a little at a time around the track. So are the robot tableaus. Meanwhile, the blue line on the sidewalk challenged people to imagine their own story. These narratives keep us engaged because we want to know what happens at the end.

The Center for the Future of Museums’ TrendsWatch 2012 suggests that pop-ups may be “a reaction against a world becoming too global and too plugged-in. Face-to-face and participatory experiences, especially in unexpected places, can serve as a counterweight to digital, virtual experiences” (p. 12). Whether this is true or not, I think they are here to stay for the foreseeable future. I’d love to hear about any pop-up projects you’ve encountered (or created) in your own city. What worked and didn’t work for you?

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Let’s Make Him Proud

MonstroCity at the City Museum in St. Louis

I just found out about the sudden death of Bob Cassilly, founder of the City Museum in St. Louis. This is the saddest of news for St. Louis, and for museums everywhere.

Cassilly’s City Museum is not your traditional city museum; it’s not really a traditional museum of any kind. But it should be an inspiration to all of us, nonetheless. It is a place for full-blown imagination and play, with caves, multi-story slides, a roof-top ferris wheel, boxing robots, a Wurlitzer pipe organ, all made from found objects. It’s a place “where people can come and do things they’re not supposed to,” according to Cassilly. It’s a children’s museum on steroids. Or what a theme park looks like when it’s designed by an artist instead of by Disney.

Cassilly and the museum attracted a fair amount of controversy over the years, but the most interesting projects usually do. If the city museums I work with and study, the traditional city museums, could harness just 10% of the sense of wonder Cassilly produced at his City Museum, they could create a much more engaging visitor experience. So all of you city museums out there, in honor of Bob Cassilly, today is the day to do something creative. Put an artist on your board of directors. Tell visitors a joke about your city when they check in at the front desk. Figure out what urban history tastes and smells like. Think about what it would mean to create a museum that’s like no other place on the planet. Let’s make him proud.

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If you happened to miss, like I did, the Grand Rapids LipDub video that went viral two weeks ago, stop everything and watch it right now. The video was created through the efforts of Rob Bliss and Scott Erickson in response to Grand Rapids’ inclusion in Newsweek‘s list of America’s dying cities (based on population decline) in January. Hundreds of local residents turned out to appear in the video, lip-syncing to Don McLean’s “American Pie,” to help Bliss and Erickson prove Newsweek wrong. I won’t go into the details too much because really, you just need to watch it.

I’ve been traveling in Europe for the past few weeks, with spotty internet access, so I hadn’t heard anything about this video until it was referenced on my favorite blog two days ago. Then there I was Friday morning in a friend’s kitchen in London, reduced to weeping at the sight of all these Grand Rapids residents, from different walks of life, stepping up to make a statement about their city. Fifty or a hundred years from now, when Rob Bliss, Mayor George Hartwell, and even perhaps Newsweek itself are long gone, Grand Rapids LipDub will be a powerful historical document, a snapshot of the city during a period of significant change: the dress, the cultural life, the architecture, the people. Here’s hoping someone stays on top of migrating the video to new formats.

Addendum: Two more comments as I continue to think about Grand Rapids LipDub. First, it’s definitely boosterism, but at least it’s an organic form of boosterism, widely supported by local residents, in reaction to boosterism’s other extreme, “ruin porn.” And second, because I do see this as a form of documentary, something Grand Rapids will want to look back on years from now, I wish it had been able to show us the full picture—good and bad, ballroom dancers and local celebrities but also the city’s homeless citizens or children without health care. But of course then it wouldn’t be boosterism. I’ll take it anyway.

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The George Washington University has announced a major gift from Washingtoniana collector Albert Small. Small’s collection of rare books, maps, documents, and ephemera comes with a $5 million dollar fund that will be used to create a new museum of Washington history in the 19th-century Woodhull House on the GW campus.

In 2003 the Historical Society of Washington DC opened a new City Museum in the old Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square. Although there was considerable buzz when the museum first opened, it closed a year later due to lack of funds and poor attendance. It has since reopened with a smaller staff and a more limited range of programs and exhibitions. Local history can be complicated in Washington, where the Smithsonian museums, and the federal government in general, loom so large. The needs of tourists, as well as those of transient federal workers, often overshadow the needs of longtime locals. The new Small museum at GW seems to be a more focused project and it has the backing of a major university—hopefully it will fare better than the City Museum, and will provide some meaningful programming to help the residents of DC understand their city.

Meanwhile, I’ll take this opportunity to point out one thing I love from the DC urban history scene, something that does work for locals. It’s the Art on Call project, which restored police and fire call boxes throughout the city, and partnered with contemporary artists to fill them with interesting installations:


(Photos by Nick Eckert © 2009 via Cultural Tourism DC)

Each neighborhood chose its own theme for its call boxes, so they really do have a local, community feel. They often allude to nearby historic buildings, or to famous people who lived in the neighborhood. The Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood even has a call box website with images of each box and a map of the box locations. So next time you are in DC put these call boxes at the top of your must-see list. Air & Space Museum can wait.

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Daniela Kostova and Olivia Robinson's Anxiety Map via Flickr/kthread

I’m a fan of the urban planner Charles Landry and his concept of the creative city. I just started his book The Art of City Making and came across this passage:

Our sensory landscape is shrinking precisely at the moment when it should be broadening. Sensory manipulation is distancing us from our cities and we are losing our visceral knowledge of them. We have forgotten how to understand the smells of the city, to listen to its noises, to grasp the messages its look sends out and to be aware of its materials.

I was reminded of Landry when I came across a link to a contemporary art exhibition currently showing at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery in NYC. It’s called You Are Here: Mapping the Psychogeography of New York City. (more…)

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Have I got a story for you. Earlier this month I paid a visit to two cities on the German/Polish border: Frankfurt on der Oder [German] and Slubice [Polish], separated by the River Oder. They used to be two sides of one German city, but Poland ended up with everything east of the river after WWII. The people who live in these cities don’t have much personal history there: Frankfurt was evacuated during WWII and very few of the residents ever returned; meanwhile Poles were brought in from elsewhere to resettle Slubice when it became Polish territory. There is one bridge across the river between the two cities (see above). From the end of WWII until 2007 it was at times a controlled border crossing and at other times closed completely. But now that Poland has joined the European Union’s border-free Schengen Zone, anyone can walk over the bridge without so much as a Simon says. The result: people who spent many years having nothing to do with one another (save perhaps a black market cigarette sale) are suddenly close neighbors. And although the two cities are starting to connect in small ways, traveling across the bridge is rarely a part of daily life. You can’t take public transportation from one to the other, for example.

Enter Michael Kurzwelly. An artist who speaks both German and Polish, he moved to the area in 1998 and began staging public “interventions” to explore issues of identity along the border. Most of these interventions center around his vision of a united city, called Slubfurt, and with help from other residents he has set about convincing people that it really exists. At the invitation of Florence Maher, a fellow Fulbrighter studying border politics at Viadrina European University in Frankfurt, I took a tour of Slubfurt and talked to Kurzwelly about his work. (more…)

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Forgive the recent silence; I have been preoccupied by a tough deadline. I was asked to write about my city museum research for a collection of essays on cities and memory, to be published (in Finnish) by the Finnish Literature Society. Now that I have sent my draft off to the editor, I can turn my attention back to you, dear reader.

One of the topics I discuss in my essay is historically-themed public art. I think it can be a particularly interesting way to interpret city history, and at the same time build meaningful urban spaces. Here are a few examples of particularly successful pieces:

First, there’s the sculpture pictured above, at the beginning of the post. It’s Balancing Act by Stephan Balkenhol, on Axel-Springer-Strasse in Berlin. It poignantly marks the borderland of the Berlin Wall with a larger-than-life figure of a man, perched on a section of the Wall as if it were a tightrope. The effect is iconographic: anyone who knows even a little bit about the history of Berlin immediately gets the message with no need for complicated interpretation. (more…)

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