Since I’ve moved to Chicago and have been working in and learning about museums, I usually don’t visit museums and see special exhibits in a casual way. I really enjoy critically assessing what institutions are doing, and I appreciate having the background knowledge I do when approaching these experiences. Sometimes it’s nice to give myself permission to just enjoy a trip to a museum, though. The Murakami exhibit up at MCA Chicago was a great opportunity to do this. I still read the labels, considered the layout and design choices, and spent a good bit of time talking over the exhibit with my partner. At the end of the day, I approached this visit differently, and it was a nice break and an excellent visit.
I’ve had the chance to check out two art exhibits that have made me reflect on the idea of museums reacting to current events. There has been a steady debate for years about these institutions being relevant, about the role neutrality should play when curating exhibits and developing programs, or if neutrality is even possible. I think the idea of remaining neutral is itself taking a stance. While the subject of certain museums lend themselves to certain issues, I do think it is possible and even advisable for cultural heritage institutions to respond to what’s happening in the world more directly.
While on Northwestern’s campus, I visited the Block Museum of Art, and I spent the majority of my time in the exhibition If You Remember, I’ll Remember. From the website for the show, it is an: “invitation to reflect on the past while contemplating the present through works of art exploring themes of love, mourning, war, relocation, internment, resistance, and civil rights in 19th and 20th century North America… by engaging with historic documents, photographs, sound recordings, oral histories and objects of material culture drawn from institutional and informal archives, these artists highlight individuals’ stories or make connections to the their own histories… some make explicit links to events across time periods, while in others these associations are implicit.” The anniversaries of Executive Order 9066 and the Supreme Court’s decision in the Loving vs. Virginia case are both reflected in artwork in this show, as are other human rights issues, many of which we are still struggling with today. I appreciated the fact that the artwork featured so much primary source material, and was moved by the stories the artists helped to tell.
I also visited the National Museum of Mexican Art for the opening of Memoria Presente: An Artistic Journey. This exhibition is a celebration of the museum’s 30th anniversary, and it features artists working in a variety of media addressing a wide range of topics and issues. From the website for the show: “Since opening its doors in 1987, the Museum has showcased 220 exhibitions that exemplify a broad spectrum of artistic expressions from both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border.. the contemporary artists now creating artwork across our Midwest city continue to accurately reflect the vibrancy and diversity found within the Chicago-Mexican community… their poetic and political expressions carry on an extensive history of contemplative work and civic dialog in North America… the Museum’s philosophy of a Mexican culture “sin fronteras” (without borders) promotes art as a bridge between communities, while art education expands minds and breaks down barriers, even as it preserves cultural heritage.” The artwork on display tackled trans identity and acceptance in the community, violence in both Mexico and the United States, and mass incarceration.
In both shows, curators provided a platform for what many would deem to be inherently political work. In fact, the work was broadly about basic human rights, and the ongoing struggles that many communities face. Direct connections were made to current topics, so these shows weren’t just reflections of the past. I appreciated this about the shows, and I found the artwork to be engaging and refreshing. I hope that more museums work to incorporate issues we’re currently facing, it helps to provide connections and integrate these institutions.
Both exhibits are up through the summer, and I’d highly recommend a trip to see both.
From If You Remember, I’ll Remember
From Memoria Presente: An Artistic Journey
I recently traveled to New York City, and I finally visited the Tenement Museum while there. This museum has been on my list to see for several years, especially since the National Public Housing Museum wants to follow a similar model of recreating apartments once their space is fully renovated. I opted to go on two of their tours, and I’m glad I did.
The living spaces above the ground-floor businesses originally shuttered due to code updates the landlord could not and did not want to fulfill. This means that the majority of the building was a time-capsule, abandoned for decades. This also means that basic updates had to be completed to open the space for tours, and there are still restrictions on how visitors see the space. There is no free roaming, and tours are limited to an hour. While I understand the practical limitations to the space, I still found myself frustrated by this highly-controlled experience. I like to take my time and absorb at my own rate.
Information was also repeated from one tour to another, particularly in the entry hallway, perhaps with the assumption that visitors usually only opt to take one tour at a time. This normally would not bother me, but with limited time, it felt like lost time.
On the whole, I did thoroughly enjoy my experience at the museum, though. I appreciate the fact that they retained the majority of surfaces as they found them when the building was first reopened. “Abandoned” apartments are showcased on each floor, so that visitors can get a sense of the scale of these rooms and the urban archaeology involved in a space like this one. In some rooms, they have uncovered over 40 layers of paint, and looking down revealed decades of changing flooring, from wood to linoleum.
The recreated apartments were also effective. Each was meant to replicate the experience of specific families that lived in the building. The objects in these spaces were collected from thrift stores, estate sales, flea markets and many other venues not usually used to fill a museum spaces. As such, they aren’t traditional collections materials, that individually tell a story. It is only collectively that they recreate the stories of the families who lived and the times in which they lived. It did feel a bit like stepping back in time, and it was done tastefully.
I had a great deal of questions after visiting - what their conservation efforts looked like while making the space visitable, what current conservation challenges they face with the space, how collections materials (from what I gathered, primarily objects recovered on the site) are handled and tracked differently than apartment objects, etc etc. I hope to be able to ask these questions to staff one day, and I also hope to be able to return once their new apartments open this summer. These feature more contemporary families, which will more closely align in time period with families NPHM will likely feature.
A group of friends and I visited the Field Museum together - it was a nice departure from our normal social activities. I tend to be a thorough, methodical museum visitor, but it’s a nice change of pace to approach these spaces more casually. I also really enjoy sharing the experience with others, it’s fun to share odd discoveries and find the most unusual-looking creature together.
A friend who previously worked at the museum encouraged the group to visit one of their newest exhibitions, which focuses on the conservation work the institutions’ scientists are actively doing: Abbott Hall of Conservation Restoring Earth. While I love the traditional dioramas, this exhibit felt much more contemporary, and the design itself matched the important work teams are doing from in landscapes from Peru to Cuba to Chicago. I was impressed in particular by a video showing off the collections storage, and how these materials contribute to our understanding of ecosystems and cultures across the globe. I welcome this direct approach museums can take to connect visitors to the institution itself and its connection to the outside world.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to see Kerry James Marshall’s survey Mastry at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. His work is incredible, and seeing so many pieces together, telling the diverse stories of African Americans in this country was moving. I was encouraged, too, to see a wide variety of individuals visiting the exhibit: young and old, all races and ethnicities. Too often I only see a specific type visiting museums; this exhibit should teach museums a lesson to make their spaces more inclusive by including more voices in what is presented. There was a nod to this in the introductory wall panel:
“For the past thirty-six years, Kerry James Marshall has been driven by a mission to address the absence of black artists and subjects in the history of art. Like many African Americans born during the civil rights movement, Marshall’s worldview and artistic practice have been shaped by questions of racial representation. He has committed to filling the walls of museums with black figures, depicting black people almost exclusively and telling stories about black lives and history on a grand scale.
To compete with the great artists from past centuries while expanding the possibilities of representation, Marshall has methodically mastered a wide range of techniques and remixed almost every tradition of painting from the past 500 years. He takes on many of the genres of art - including history painting, landscape, portraiture, and abstraction - carrying the tradition of painting into the present. To do this, he incorporates references to history, pop culture, contemporary life, and his hometown Chicago. He also reenvisions how African Americans are depicted, mixing black pigments to create his own set of tones for the skin and features of his subjects. In his richly detailed paintings - complex, beautiful, and relevant to the challenges of our time - it pays to look, look closely, and look again.”
The show is now traveling, I hope many more have a chance to connect with Marshall’s work.
Another great year of visiting interesting sites! This year we covered locations from Back of the Yards, the Loop, and UIC. These are a few phone shots, proper photos will be posted on my site soon.
We also visited the German Museum of Technology in Berlin. Industry, infrastructure, and transportation turned out to be the inadvertent theme of our trip. There was limited text in English, so I decided to enjoy the photographic opportunities in the space. These are a few shots I took with my phone, many more were taken with my DSLR.
Another museum we visited on our trip was the DDR Museum in Berlin. It opened in 2006, and it is rare (in Germany) in that it’s a privately-funded institution. It is a popular destination in the city, and that certainly proved to be the case when we visited. It was difficult to see everything, due in part to the crowding, the relatively small space of the exhibits, and the design of the exhibits themselves.
The primary exhibition spaces, which covered everything from travel throughout Eastern Bloc countries to required military service, relied on cabinets which you had to open to see objects and read about them. Drawers and shelves which could be opened had handles, but even with this visual clue, many skipped them opting to see what few displays were out in the open. Given how limited an area one had to be in to see the opened cabinets, it was a crowded, rushed experience that didn’t seem to connect much with the content itself. There were many in-depth interactives, as well, including “dressing” a dissident and running a factory under the limitations of the DDR. I only had the opportunity to try one of these, but it was an interesting way of engaging with this history.
The recreation of the apartment made more sense to have information presented in this way. Visitors could open kitchen cabinets and drawers under bunk beds to learn more about particular aspects of day-to-day life in East Berlin. Statistics were printed on appliances, and there was a CG timelapse of views outside the windows of the apartment, showing what the neighborhood looked like.
The tone of the labels was biased, sometimes sarcastic. This is interesting given how recently all of this occurred, and how most museums attempt to stay as neutral as possible (sometimes to their detriment). Perhaps this can be attributed to its private funding.
I would be curious to know how this museum is perceived by visitors, both those who experienced life in the DDR and outsiders. I walked away from the experience intrigued by the bias, but somewhat frustrated by the limitations in what I could see.
We just came back from a trip overseas, and we visited several museums along the way. Two of these sites included the Maritime Museum and the Harbor Museum in Hamburg. When I first learned about both, I was curious as to the similarities between the two, and there turned out to be many striking differences.
We visited the Maritime Museum first. It is surrounded by (and is housed in) large red brick warehouses recognized by Unesco as a World Heritage Site, which complements the comprehensive information the museum presents about all things shipping. It opened in 2008, and the overall design and flow of the exhibits is reflected in its recent inception. Much of the original structure was maintained while renovating the space for the museum, and the rustic columns and beams work nicely with the sleek glass cases and minimalist design used for the collections. The design of the space works well to highlight the objects. There are ten stories to visit, though we didn’t make it to all, and it would be easy to spend an entire day admiring the many amazing ship models, uniforms, buoys, and machines. I learned a lot about the history of shipping through this museum, which was a nice foundation for our visit to the Harbor Museum.
The Harbor Museum is located is the harbor proper - across the Elbe from the city center and nestled into working spaces of the busy port. We ventured over by means of bikes, which was a great way of seeing more of the impressive infrastructure surrounding this museum. This site is also located in a former warehouse, but the presentation is much different than that of the Maritime Museum.
Wandering inside, there are large industrial shelves filled with collections materials, some with labels explaining the contents. Scattered throughout, there are basic boxes with lights and plexi covers which hold groups of objects and labels. It feels more like storage than a traditional museum space, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Though the lack of climate control and protection seemed to cause stress to some of the materials, the space seemed much more lively than the Maritime Museum. There were individuals displaying their own model ships, and children and adults were “racing” model ships outside the main entrance.
Outside, we wandered through their oversized industrial collections - cranes, railroad cars, and ships floating in the port. I was struck by how much freedom we were given; in the United States, we’d have to sign waivers and be supervised. It wasn’t always clear what was part of the museum and what was actually still in use - there was a basic map but no signs to guide the way. We ended up getting stranded under the cover of one of the warehouses when a thunderstorm let loose.
I’m glad we experienced both museums - one traditional which taught us a great deal, one untraditional which felt more like an industrial playground. It was nice to learn both through exhibition labels and through actual hands-on exploration. I think this speaks to the amazing range one can find within the museum world.
The Chicago Cultural Center hosted an excellent exhibit of Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests this winter. I’ve long admired his mobile creatures, so it was wonderful to have the chance to see them up close. On display were black and white photographs of the beasts in action, a wide variety of the handcrafted pieces used in the sculptures, some hands-on demonstrations of engineering principles, and several retired Strandbeests. There were wranglers on standby for daily demonstrations, showing how the beasts harness and store wind power for self-mobilization.
I love the combination of engineering and aesthetics that go into Jansen’s work, and the exhibit showed off this pairing beautifully.
While visiting family in Boise, I visited the Idaho State Penitentiary. This historic site functioned as a prison from 1872 to 1973, and it is comprised of complex of buildings surrounded by an imposing stone wall. Over 13,000 inmates lived here while the penitentiary was active. Prisoner riots in the 1970s over living conditions led to its closure and it was placed on theNational Register of Historic Places the year it closed.
I picked up a quarterly issue of Clog at the Chicago Architecture Biennial on prisons and architecture. The dozens of articles by architects, reformers and activists, and prisoners shed light on a variety of issues that relate to this type of architecture. This publication helped put into context my visit to the historic penitentiary. When prisons were first built, they were meant both to punish those deemed to be criminal and protect society from the prisoners. There was often little consideration for the physical, much less the psychological, well-being of the inhabitants of these buildings, given these goals. This explained the cramped, dreary quarters and what to me seemed like uninhabitable windowless boxes that were solitary confinement.
There was also an essay discussing the recent trend of historic prisons as horror-gazing. Historic sites face the challenge of competing with other entertainment and cultural attractions. Some make the decision to dramatise some historical aspects in order to appeal to a wider audience. Idaho State Penitentiary has capitalized on this trend, offering haunted tours and a Halloween haunted house. Sensationalizing what was indeed a place of great misfortune and unhappiness can trivialize it. It’s a fine line to walk between experimenting with the identity of a former prison and exploiting the reality that many faced while residing here.
I’m glad we visited, though the trip took a toll on us, and I left with more questions than I started with thanks to Clog.
Sadly, the first Chicago Architecture Biennial has come to a close. I’m happy I was able to attend some of the programs and spend time exploring the extensive exhibits at the Cultural Center. I also had the chance to get out of the city for an interesting day trip thanks to one of the sponsors. S.C. Johnson offered free shuttles and tours of their campus in Racine, Wisconsin throughout the biennial. I took advantage of this opportunity, and neither the Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings nor the locally-purchased Danish kringle disappointed.
In addition to the exhibits on display at the Cultural Center and at many other venues across the city, there have been lots of programs for the Architecture Biennial. There are lectures and site tours nearly every day, and I have had the chance to attend two different discussions over the last few weeks: Here Comes the Neighborhood - Placemaking and Transforming Neighborhoods; and Art, Architecture and Community: Catalysts for Social Change.
Here Comes the Neighborhood was a discussion moderated by the curator of the National Museum of Mexican Art. Juan Gabriel Moreno of JGMA and Katherine Darnstadt of Latent Designs “examined the transformation of urban landscapes and the influence of architecture and aesthetics on community and civic life.” I was particularly interested in their discussion of community buy-in for their projects, and fostering a sense of pride.
Art, Architecture and Community was a presentation by Catherine Baker of Landon Bone Baker Architects on her firm’s project of turning former public housing buildings in Greater Grand Crossing into mixed income housing and a community dance center. She talked about the process, from the additional bureaucratic challenges of working with the Chicago Housing Authority to the evolving understanding of the condition of the buildings themselves to the in-depth process of getting community input for the public space. As a part of the Rebuild Foundation’s complex, this project is an interesting example of taking unused property and reusing it for the good of the neighborhood.
These programs have proved that the Architecture Biennial is more than a presentation of beautiful buildings - it’s an evaluation of all the different forms architecture takes, and how the built environment should benefit those who use these spaces.
The inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial opened in October and will continue through January of next year. The expectations for this event were high, though there was a good deal of uncertainty as to what it would look like, and how it might appeal to a wider audience than architects and urban planners. I visited the hub of exhibits and lectures for the biennial, the Cultural Center, and was pleased to see it well attended by a diverse audience.
Every floor featured a number of exhibits dealing with different aspects of our constructed environment. There were models and renderings from international firms solving problems, some of which had been realized, and there were also more abstract representations of architecture. Sou Fujimoto Architects created an installation of dozens of small sculptures on pedestals that, paired with small figures, became found architecture. The playfulness and humor made the work fun to explore. Some of my favorite work was that of Professor Amanda Williams. Her photographs struck me; from the CAB website: “her work centers on color, race, and space… she uses vivid, culturally derived colors to paint abandoned houses on Chicago’s South Side, marking the pervasiveness of undervalued Black space.”
Even after wandering through the building for several hours, I feel like I barely scratched the surface of everything on display. Another trip will definitely be necessary.
My favorite weekend every year is the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House. It’s a fantastic opportunity to see buildings that are often off-limits to the public, many of which have excellent tours. I’ve also used it as a way of seeing parts of the city I don’t often get to explore. This year, I ventured out with friends to see sites in Bridgeport, Back of the Yards, South and West Loop, and downtown. As always, I had a great time, and would highly recommend making sure you’re in Chicago next year for Open House!
October is a busy month in Chicago, packed with amazing cultural events around the city. This year, I took advantage of the Chicago Open Archives weekend and visited the Ryerson & Burnham Archives at the Art Institute. The archivist walked our group through highlights of the archives and gave some fascinating background information on the objects on display. Architecture is one of the primary reasons I moved here, so this architecture-centric collection is right up my alley.
Friends were recently in town for the opening of De vuelta: Works by Chicago Imagist Errol Ortiz. Our friend had talked about how his father was a painter, but I think few of us who came to the reception realized what an important (and largely missing) part of this iconic group of Chicago artists Mr. Ortiz was. The work itself was absolutely amazing, and it was wonderful being able to see so much of it, spanning the length of his artistic career, in his first solo exhibit. I would highly recommend a trip to see it, the show is up through March 2016 at the National Museum of Mexican Art.
After a year-long hiatus from exhibiting personal work, I recently had an image chosen for the juried Lillstreet Gallery Midwest Contemporary show. The juror chose a wonderfully diverse group of images, and I enjoyed his statement.
The exhibit is up through April 19, check it out if you're in the area.