Museums Seek Clarity, Face Challenges to Budgets and Relevance

Lately I’ve been taking advantage of the comp museum admission perk through my employment with New-York Historical Society.  I’ve saved a good deal of cash at New York’s premier cultural institutions with inflated admission prices ($25, MoMA; $20, Frick Collection; $22, Guggenheim), not to mention high-fived each person who shares the benefit of working in this city’s culture scene.  If it were possible to kill time, stare at an El Greco, use a clean bathroom, and bump into no less than thirty tourists all in a 10-minute museum visit, I think my museum employee ID ensures it.

But every free walk-in reminds me how muddled are the economics and politics of museums (alternately “culture and arts,” but I’m a museophile).  At a time of decreasing attendance and funding sources, museums are faced with increasing operational costs and challenges to their relevance.  Plainly it’s a matter of numbers and letters, as these institutions, often not-for-profit and missioned to perform a public good, struggle to do more with less.  The expectations to put on bigger exhibitions, host newer programming, and continue to captivate diverse audiences, are, frankly, met with profound difficulty.

Smithsonian Castle, where the recent exhibit "Souvenir Nation" highlights ongoing issues of money and relevance facing museums (Photo credit: Nicholas Merkelson)

Smithsonian Castle, where the recent exhibit “Souvenir Nation” highlights ongoing issues of money and relevance facing museums (Photo credit: Nicholas Merkelson)

I think this a reality well observed by James Durston in his CNNTravel piece “Why I hate museums.”  I hesitate to agree with him on some points, for fear of biting the hand that feeds.  But I don’t believe Durston is wrong when he admonishes the Smithsonian for recently exhibiting “an old brick, an old piece of rock, some hair and a napkin.”  In my opinion, “Souvenir Nation” is a grave example of museums, as a collective, fighting the fight to provide entertainment and education yet failing on both fronts.

By framing the exhibit as a display of “personal objects that Americans have taken, made and saved as historical mementos from the Early Republic up to the present day,” the Smithsonian is making its best attempt at mass appeal.  Whereas NMAH attracts visitors with layered exhibit space (American Wars and Politics; American Ideals; Transportation and Technology), “Souvenir Nation” as a small exhibit of NMAH seems to grasp for loose thematic threads.  Likewise, there is not very much revealing about historical mementos from the better part of 250 years; to call them relics, keepsakes, and curios feigns an actual significance beyond the pocket of the man, woman, or child who plucked it from the ground.  Indeed, the objects are diminutive in both size and significance, having collected dust in the Smithsonian vaults with relatively little attention or interest save for their acquisition.  It is an oddly curated cross-section of Americana, so arcane and unspecific in scope, it’s display is found in the Smithsonian Castle adjacent to three exhibition halls recently shuttered as a result of the U.S. government sequester.

What about “Souvenir Nation” screams blockbuster must-see exhibit?  Nothing.  Where is the interactivity?  Where is the depth of understanding?  Where is the imagination?

I appreciate the exhibit’s ontology, that Americans have collected and cherished ordinary objects during historically important events and periods, imbuing such items with a sacredness and meaning far more powerful than their physical nature.  However, I disagree with the approach and execution.  Displays of wood chips and stones do not help shed museums’ reputation of being boring, old, dusty, and ivory-towered, nor do they speak to a museum’s accessibility, innovation, and future.

For museums, Collecting Culture is a rather high concept in the presentation of self.  As museum educators, curators, and leaders (professionals bestowed the honor of composing narratives and designing inclusive exhibits), our goal should be a presentation of the How and Why versus the What and When.

Posted in authenticity, collections, culture, exhibition, museums, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Frames Upon Frames At Collector’s Showroom

Today I went to Diego Salazar Antique Frames in Long Island City, New York.  It’s a place well known in the frame game (Merkelson 2013), but I surprisingly found it hidden among steel-doored warehouses just south of Queens Boulevard.  Having seen his frames before at Sotheby’s and among collectors’ private storage, I knew the man had refined taste.  I figured I should stop by, especially because of this recent New York Times article.

Mr. Salazar is a private collector and dealer, an expert in form and design who has devoted the past 40 years building a unique collection of authentic European and American period frames.  The 200 carefully curated frames on display represent a small percentage of his 1000+ collection.  It’s an impressive sight, the ornately carved Italian of 1425 installed opposite the c.1890 Stanford White gilded masterpiece.  You almost forget there is no artwork; still, frame upon frame, the emptiness is not lost in mere pieces of wood.

Mr. Salazar's love for intricately carved French frames on display in his gallery (photo credit: Nicholas Merkelson)

Mr. Salazar’s love for intricately carved French frames on display in his gallery (photo credit: Nicholas Merkelson)

I went there knowing less about the Italian vs. American than I’d like to admit, plus I quickly realized the Lion’s Den was not the best place for a crash course in antique frames (Indeed, I was sweating from the ride and locked my hulking 30-year-old Motobecane next to his E350; I was quite aware of my presence).  I presented a few legitimate but typical questions: How many?  How long?  Any favorites?  Why frames?  I think/hope he could see I wanted to know more despite my appearance of a sweaty thief.

In the 20 minutes I chatted with him, I pegged three characteristic traits of collectors*:

The collection occupies a big space.  Mr. Salazar’s frames fill the showroom, adjacent studios, a nearby building, and I’m sure his apartment, too.  Decades of fastidious collecting has resulted in a massive amount of objects.  With total care taken to maximize display and storage, those who encounter the collection will appreciate not just individual frames but the complete size, scope, diversity, and arrangement.  (As any collections manager is wont to do, I wondered what method is used to house so many frames, what is the chosen cataloging or inventory software, etc.)  Really, how are the quirky folks on American Pickers who construct their homes around their collections any different than the collector who “has enough space” to showcase a $500,000 frame?

The collection is a living thing.  Mr. Salazar speaks of a frame’s beauty, of falling in love with each one, of  aged gilding and how a frame looks better over time.  Though  “they play second fiddle” in the art market, this is an aspect of ongoing collecting Mr. Salazar thoroughly enjoys.  It may take three months to sell just one frame, he says.  Not a problem, more opportunity for the collection to grow.  (I image snooty curators or snooty collectors wavering incessantly about the minutiae of style; with a slight glance at their bank account, they both settle on a Woolworth’s frame instead.)  When asked if he could identify a favorite, Mr. Salazar seemed hesitant to answer, pointing first at a Louis XIV, then towards the 15th century Italian, while looking over at the walls of Spanish, Dutch, and Americans.  They were all exquisite.

The collection provides a great business.  Mr. Salazar got his start manufacturing frames over 30 years ago.  If you can make it, you can appreciate it, right?  Well, if you can make it AND sell it, you can appreciate it even more.  As a gallery, Diego Salazar Antique Frames offers clients services beyond dealing “museum quality frames”–from restoration and replication of a frame’s antique appearance; to stabilization and conservation of original elements; to expert appraisals and condition surveys.  He will even give public lectures and gallery talks, the only sense of philanthropy in the educative value of his customized presentations.  When you’re the face of a one-of-a-kind collection like that, own it.  As a collector, there’s nothing like spelling your own name on an awning, let alone lending it to a gallery or creating an entire museum.

I would love to own a Goya and put it in one of these gorgeous Spanish frames (photo credit: Nicholas Merkelson)

I would love to own a Goya and put it in one of these gorgeous Spanish frames (photo credit: Nicholas Merkelson)

*I am not presenting these as characteristic of collectors in general.  Collectors are as unique as their collections.  However, I believe these are attributable to people who have a collecting tendencies, which as we’ve seen is widespread and universal (read: “What is a collection, and what is collecting?”)

Posted in authenticity, collections, Diego Salazar, exhibition, framing, Francisco Goya, galleries, New York Times, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Finnish Baby Buggy Bumper: Finland’s “Maternity Package” as Cultural Heritage

In 1938, the Finnish government introduced the Maternity Grants Act.  That year, Finland’s expectant mothers each received a baby shower of supplies for their newborn.  All-weather clothing, health and hygiene products, bedding, a toy–these were some of life’s bare necessities included in the box (which even doubled as a crib).  Today, the 75-year-old maternity package tradition is very much thriving, a cultural rite of passage for proud mothers-to-be, and a key contributor to the country’s low infant mortality and high quality of life.

When the legislation first passed, Finland boasted one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world–65 deaths per 1,000 births.  There was no nationalized health insurance program (as there is today), and a weak hospital network left many Finns with no access to doctors and nurses.  Prenatal care was a mere afterthought for the large rural poor population, and few sought it.  Even fewer could afford it.

The Maternity Grants Act was passed as a legal measure to combat these social ills, a healthy-minded gift of government, as it were.  Carefully curated maternity packages are intended to give all Finnish children the same start, if not the same winter caps.  Interestingly almost all first-time mothers choose the package over the 140 Euros cash grant.  To collect, pregnant women are required to seek prenatal tests at a municipal maternity unit before their fourth month.  There, they are given essential, once-unaffordable supplies and healthcare advice (like, “Don’t sleep with your baby; lie it on its back in this box,” and “Show your baby this photo book so s/he can learn”).  For several decades, the successful maternity grants program was the one of its kind in the world.  By 1979, 100 percent of women were seeking prenatal care, up from 20 percent in 1940.  In 2012, Finland had one of the world’s lowest infant mortality rates, an impressively small 2.4 (Finland National Institute for Health and Welfare).

Posted in anthropology, culture, Finland, heritage, identity, intangible cultural heritage, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lordy Lord, Lourdes! Pilgrimage Site Suffers Record Flooding

The rainwater and snowmelt that flooded southwest France just over a week ago has finally receded.  The normally tranquil Gave de Pau river rose as much as 15 feet, spilling over its banks and pouring into medieval towns across the Pyrenees.  Hit hard and “quite traumatized” was the holy city of Lourdes, the partially subterranean pilgrimage site touristed 6 million devotees annually.  Where the pilgrims come by the busload, looking for a miraculous cure for their pain and disease, the city itself now faces months of reclamation and rebuilding.

The holy sanctuary at Lourdes was heavily damaged by flooding.  (Photo credit: Bob Edme/AP)

The holy sanctuary at Lourdes was heavily damaged by recent record floods (Photo credit: Bob Edme/AP)

Surveys by Church and local authorities place damage estimates at “significantly more” than the 1.3 million euros paid for last October’s flooding.  Waters didn’t hit the sanctuary then; today, the grotto remains partially flooded, with certain areas covered in more than a foot of mud.

(See the sanctuary’s official Flickr Photostream for pretty intense images of the damage and relief efforts.)

The centennial flooding has severely disrupted this year’s high tourist season.  In July and August, a peak 40,000 pilgrims arrive each day.  To house the crowds, Lourdes (pop. 15,000) boasts the second highest concentration of hotels after Paris.  Yet flood damage to 37 of the city’s 200 hotels has forced the cancellation of thousands of reservations.  Some hotels, operated in historic structures on medieval cobblestone streets, will remain closed for many more months.  Thousands of Lourdes residents have even been evacuated from their powerless homes, and three deaths have been attributed to the floods.  As if anyone needed a reality-check, roads and roofs must be rebuilt before any of the sick can go in search of their own Lourdes miracle.

Instances of unexpected devastation to heritage sites recall important topics in sustainable preservation, site management, and restoration.  While forces of nature are somewhat unpredictable and wholly uncontrollable, preventive and mitigative measures can and should be taken, particularly for heavily touristed outdoor sites.  Will the sanctuary’s authorities construct flood doors at the entrance to the underground complex?  Will the site be restored to an authentic appearance modeled on the original?  Or will new design elements and plans be introduced which account for future catastrophe?  Does this event portend a stronger movement–by Church, local and state government, and/or heritage preservationists–to protect sites that once did not seem endangered?  (Floods at the Austrian village of Hallstatt, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have raised similar concerns, as the centuries-old cobblestone town square was destroyed.  Still, the cultural landscape of Hallstatt-Dachstein is able to receive funding for its clean up, a privilege of its UNESCO status.)

Regarding the Lourdes pilgrimage, how does the flood affect the psyche of people who visit for their own healing?  How will this event serve to attract or deter pilgrims from making the journey?

(Sanctuary officials have set up this Flood Solidarity donation page.)

Posted in cultural conservation, cultural sustainability, culture, endangered sites, floods, France, heritage, heritage tourism, Lourdes, pilgrimage, Roman Catholic, site conservation, Uncategorized, UNESCO, World Heritage List | Leave a comment

Culture in Peril Shares Photos and Videos

The Author at Tower of Belem, Lisbon, Portugal

The only photograph of me holding a camera happens to have been taken at the Tower of Belem, Lisbon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Photo Credit: Derek Orth)

I missed the Instagram memo and decided to start a Flickr Photostream instead.  I like the use of the Flickr portfolio to share images and videos more than the actual social media component of Instagram, though I’m sure each service would function in generally the same way for my simple purposes.  Here you’ll see raw (no post-production involved) photos I’ve taken at different times and in different places.  You’ll see an underlying theme, in sets: Interiors: Inside Places and Spaces; Exteriors: Outside Places and Spaces; Storage Environs; and more to come as I continue adding.  In general, most of these photos are of museums, libraries, historic sites, culturally significant environments.  Some photos are artful and well-composed, others not so much, but hey, I never claimed to be a travel photographer, just a heritage tourist/activist!  I want you to see what I see when I visit these places and spaces.

Be sure to check em out here.  Please leave comments and suggestions!

Posted in Flickr, heritage, heritage tourism, Instagram, photography, travel | Leave a comment

Post Office Workers Curb Illicit Smuggling of Peru’s National Cultural Heritage

This article was prominently featured in the The New York Times Americas section on June 14th.  Self-proclaimed “defenders” of their nation’s history, an art historian and an archaeologist have joined together to safeguard Peruvian cultural heritage from illicit smuggling.  Trafficking in cultural artifacts has long plagued Peru, beginning with the Spanish conquest of the Inca over five centuries ago, and continuing today through a vibrant global black market in stolen antiquities.  These illegal goods, bound for destinations in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, are stolen property of the Peruvian government and its people, whether a pre-Hispanic textile or 18th-Century saber.  “No matter how small a piece is,” Gladiz Collatupa, the archaeologist, affirms, “they are part of our identity.”

Postal workers in Peru opening packages of suspected illegally smuggled cultural treasures

Postal workers in Peru opening packages of suspected illegally smuggled cultural treasures (Photo credit: Tomas Munita, The New York Times)

Particularly alarming is the fact that, according to the article, many of the items are mailed by tourists “unaware they are breaking the law.”  Cultural tourists may purchase what they know to be a traditional craft manufactured as a souvenir; in reality, the artisan may have altered the object with an authentic and illicit object.  Otherwise, they may be sending home coins to their children, or masks to the auction block.  The presumed innocence of the tourist remains, and it is unlikely anybody would face serious repercussions.  (“Since 2007, no one has been sent to prison for cultural trafficking in Peru.”)  Perhaps this is because the words of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 are not printed at the Lima post office.  But also, more likely, it is the relative disconnectedness or ignorance by the average cultural tourist of international regulations on cultural property.

Posted in archaeology, art trade, cultural conservation, cultural property, culture, endangered sites, heritage, identity, looting, Peru | Leave a comment

Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, NY

Yesterday I visited for the first time the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, NY.  Founded in 1897 but relocated from nearby South Hampton last year, the Parrish focuses on American art, with a particular emphasis on work from the artist colony on Long Island’s picturesque North and South Shores.  Like the area around it, the structure itself is absolutely stunning.  The museum was designed by Basel-based Pritzker Prize winning architects Herzog & de Meuron, who designed or repurposed, among other  prominent cultural institutions, the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis, MN) and Tate Modern (London).  As you can see, the 615-foot “barn” fits perfectly within it’s surroundings of tall grasses and wide vistas, the same environment which inspired the likes of William Merritt Chase, Fairfield Porter, and Childe Hassam.  (Indeed, it was Chase who, in the late-19th century, founded the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art.  The school’s students, observing scenes of changing daylight over eastern Long Island waters, became pioneers of American Impressionism; their work can be found in the museum’s permanent collection.)
Visible through the museum building is the rural “countryside” of eastern Long Island

In contrast to the maze-like layouts of other museums–which, to me, feel confining and confusing, as I wander in and out of galleries with seemingly no exit (or natural light!)–I found the central corridor layout of the Parrish especially inviting.  No sense of “Did I already walk in there?” (or worse, “Did I not walk in there?”), and no chance of missing the exhibition you actually wanted to see.  All of the major display areas are clearly identified, as in the collection highlights hall found in the Harriet and Esteban Vicente Gallery, seen below.

Galleries radiate out from the central “spine” of the barn-like museum
John Chamberlain’s monumental “Tambourinefrappe” (2010)
dominates the Harriet and Esteban Vicente Gallery at the Parrish Art Museum

Here are the exhibitions currently open at the Museum, and here are the hours visitors are welcome.

(All photo credits belong to Nicholas Merkelson.)

Posted in American Impressionism, art, Herzog & de Mueron, John Chamberlain, Long Island, museums, Parrish Art Museum | Leave a comment