A dose of wonder from DC’s museums

Have you been following the tag #5womenartists on social media? The National Museum of Women in the Arts has been running a challenge over instagram et al. to raise awareness of female artists during the month of March, and there have been a lot of neat posts from other museums as well as individuals (including artists themselves). I recommend checking it out if you have time.

When I was in DC at the end of last month for Museums Advocacy Day, I had a little free time, and naturally used it to tour museums (and the Library of Congress, because  librarian’s daughter).

Renwick Gallery (of the Smithsonian American Art Museum): Wonder exhibition review

The Wonder exhibit was a piece of colorful communal paradise on a rainy Sunday. Though I was operating on about four hours of sleep, I was completely enthralled with the show and went through it about 1.5 times because there were several installations I needed to spend just a bit more time with.

Each gallery in the recently restored Renwick was home to one installation, and my favorite thing about this tactic was how thoroughly it changed your experience of the museum from room to room. Patrick Dougherty’s Shindig Stickwork installation made for a mischievous, rambunctious audience experience, as people ducked in and around the swirling stick sculptures, peeking through windows and twirling between them in much the same kind of movement as the twigs themselves. Janet Echelman’s tsunami-inspired net sculpture and its corresponding rug was a much quieter experience, encouraging people to linger as the lights and shadows shifted, to lie down on the floor and just observe. Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus A1 was especially effective in its brilliance against the gray rain hitting the windows behind it; I did pity the guard stationed there who had to keep warning people not to get too close, because that rainbow of thread was as appealing a spider’s web as I’ve ever seen. It was hard to believe it wasn’t itself glowing, just excellent lighting. I admit I was less enthralled than many of the people I saw that day with the room entirely decorated with dead insects, and the sculpture out of tires, while texturally appealing, smelled distinctly of burned rubber and I couldn’t figure out if I was looking at a post-industrial dragon hide or a rejected piece of scenery from Mad Max: Fury Road. That said, the sheer variety of installations on view meant there was something for everyone.

I also found myself taking pictures of a bunch of the labels; not something I usually do unless I’m trying to remember an artist’s name, but the interpretation panels generally and the ‘wonder’ themed quotes they picked were exceptional. I love the idea of defining wonder as ‘a suprise of the soul.’

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National Museum of Women in the Arts review

Firstly, major kudos to the visitor services team. The woman on duty at the front desk actually left her post to give me an extra suggestion and a gallery activity to take along, when I was partway into the galleries. Big points for being helpful and friendly! Said gallery activity was pretty interesting, too; I regretted that I was on my own and had no one with whom to discuss the questions posed for the various highlighted objects.

I had no idea this museum was as big as it is; I did a shamefully poor job on the top floor as I needed to catch my plane back to Boston. I will definitely need to go back. There were works by artists I recognized, and of course dozens upon dozens of works and artists that were new to me. It was a very good day for learning things, and for appreciating the breadth of the collection, from painting to photography to reinterpretations of materials and techniques in craft and design. The Pathmakers exhibit was much more interesting than I expected, in fact (though as with many design shows I found myself wondering for some pieces about where the function had gotten lost along the way to the form).

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The museum has works of art created by women (and often featuring women) since the Renaissance. One of the things which most impressed me, as I suspect the balance was a fine one, was the tone in which the interpretation was presented. Labels, theme panels, etc. did not shy away from talking about the fact that women’s art was traditionally underrepresented in the Western canon, nor that women’s art was often influenced by the materials and roles generally assigned to them, nor that sometimes (especially in the 20th century) women’s art was directly related to political statements about women’s rights. However, these came across as statements of fact without seeming loaded, accusatory, or otherwise negatively charged. In a world that is increasingly emotionally and politically volatile, it was delightful, even restorative, to be somewhere that recognized, remedied, and celebrated instead. It was a great way to end my trip to DC.

Next week I’ll be hitting up historic houses and possibly the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut, so stay tuned for some history-themed posts in the near future!

“To Help People Dream,” AAM Day 2

I have a feeling that this is the sort of conference that gets exponentially more busy each day, so today I’m going to stick to bullet points: my top 3-5 reactions, quotes, ideas, or experiences from each session.  (You can expect me to go back to some of these ideas in later posts instead.)

Session 1: Stories Alive: The Power of Theater in Conservation Education

  • I respect people who start professional conference sessions with puppets.  Seriously, way to grab attention when half the people in the room haven’t got their caffeine yet because the conference center Starbucks was overwhelmed.
  • This was an interesting balance to yesterday’s session, because it included examples of different kinds of (mostly larger) theater programs, and also discussion of evaluation and figuring out lingering impact and message effectiveness.

Session 2: General Session – Education, Stories, Museums: Transforming Lives, Keynote Speaker Dr. Freeman Hrabowski of UMBC


  • Instead of ‘what did you learn today,’ ask ‘did you ask a good question today?’  Encouraging curiosity leads to great thinkers.
  • Experience in the arts, even if you are not excellent, makes you realize and appreciate what it takes to be excellent.
  • The fundamental purpose of museum and of education is to help people dream.

Session 3: 3D Printing from the Smithsonian

  • I feel like museums need to go talk to people at Pixar and Weta and some of the other fields where they’ve been doing more with 3D scans and imagery, like those laser scanned reproductions of various actors for their character busts and replicas.  Because there are cool ideas out there we could be using.
  • I like the idea of reproduced models of archaeological digs and virtual dinosaur bones for study.
  • The Smithsonian has a real advantage in testing out these new techniques given that they have 19 museums and 9 research centers to play around with a range of ideas.


Session 4: Maximizing the Nation’s Common Wealth: Museums and Parks in Partnership

  • Sitting in the same room with the Secretary of the Smithsonian and the Deputy Director of the National Park Service is a little like attending a museum equivalent of a rock concert.
  • The strategic plans (with an emphasis on education for each) are supposed to be available in the session notes on the AAM website.  They sound/look like an interesting read.
  • For all that they have significant and impressive visitation figures, both institutions suffer from the same issues regarding diversity and relevance that almost all traditional museums are currently facing and attempting to change.  It will be interesting to see what works on such a large scale.

Session 5a: Museum Marketplace: Exhibit Labels competition

  • Definitely a lot of labels that privilege descriptive writing over the purely didactic.  Makes for an interesting read that has either a conversational or reflective cadence.




Session 5b: Museum Marketplace: Education showcase

  • Always nice to see what other folks in my field are up to!  Reading blogs is interesting, conversations are even better.
  • Fun and interesting thoughts about Maker spaces and their uses with school programs.
  • Cool cooperation happening between Smithsonian museums for interdisciplinary approaches to exhibits, especially art & science.  Always nice to see that happening.

Expo Showcase 6: Augmenting Dinosaurs – Augmented Reality Installations 

  • I appreciated the opportunity to hear from museum staff, computer/media designers, and the paleontologist whose research led to the animations used in the augmented reality interactives.  The range of perspectives made it more useful and interesting than a vendor-only session would have been.
  • T-Rex shook its prey like a crocodile does and Allosaurus did the dip and rip move that small raptors like kestrels do.  And they can tell that based on skeletons and the way the muscles would have had to attach to them.  Amazing.
  • Augmented reality seems like a reasonable thing to explore for enlivening the natural history elements in the Art & Nature Center–but I wonder, what would make it compelling for the Art half of that equation?

After Hours Fun 7: Wonders of the Undersea World at the Baltimore National Aquarium

  • Great staff, very personable and willing to answer questions on practically any topic.  Beautiful building,  not unlike Boston’s NEAq (and the central tank was apparently designed by the same person)
  • They have dolphins–7 of them. I am very jealous.  
  • I loved the rainforest exhibit, including the opportunity for visitors to hold a stick with live crickets over the archer fish tank and watch them spit water at the crickets to knock them into eating range.  That was highly entertaining, if unfortunate for the crickets.
  • I will never understand aquarium catering being okay with serving seafood, no matter how tasty the crab dip.