25 November 2009

Julia Child's Kitchen

After my fab visit to the NMAI, my cohort (hi Kevin Coffee!) and I split and I set off on foot to Foggy Bottom to meet some of my crew from my Rome years.  But on my way, it popped into my head that in Julie & Julia they visit Julia's kitchen at the National Museum of American History.  So I thought I'd poke in and have a look.

What fun!

There's just one thing I want to point out about this exhibit, which was such a pleasure overall.  When we get into structuralist analysis, we sometimes describe artworks (literature, visual arts, music, architecture) in terms of a conversation between the artist and viewer.  Relatedly, I've often said that while I love visiting museums, I also can't not go anymore without really analyzing what's going on -- I read an exhibit the way I'd read a single painting or a text.  Most of the time, that makes for a rather serious intellectual exercise -- and something that makes my brain itch, not smile.

But I exclaim what fun! about this Julia Child exhibit, because in this case, it did make me smile and make me think that the curators and exhibit designers were having a good time while they were doing their job:

Julia Child is often credited as being a major influence on the development of Americans as wine connoisseurs.  On her ground-breaking TV show, she dug deeper by enjoying a glass of wine at the end.  But on television, it wasn't some Mouton Rothschild from the Child wine cellar -- it was a mixture of Gravy Master and water!  Now we have even more reason to love Julia, because she was capable of ingesting not only divine bœuf bourguignon but also this crazy spotiote of Gravy Master and water.

And so what made me smile about the exhibit design?  First, the 'setting apart' of this most banal, humble, and pop-culture-50s-housewife of "flavor enhancers" in an obviously custom acrylic case.  So we're having fun playing with high/low culture here when Gravy Master gets similar display treatment as the Venus of Willendorf.  And that's further ratcheted up a notch when behind the Gravy Master is a facsimile of the Child wine cellar inventory. 

Good to see that Museum People don't always take ourselves too seriously!

National Museum of the American Indian

It's Thanksgiving Week.  Apparently, it's a week now -- lots of friends get the week off, etc.  Since I'm working retail this holiday season, I'm part of the consumption more than usual, especially on Friday.  But on Sunday after church I was at the National Museum of the American Indian -- appropriate considering the origins of Thanksgiving.

In fact, I'm going to start with that.  Over at Bitch, PhD there's an interesting discussion in the comments about how to talk with kids about Thanksgiving -- and before everyone gets all upset, it's talking about the historical origins of Thanksgiving, which doesn't mean we're not allowed to be thankful.  We don't have to condone genocide and imperialism, either, though.  And check out this article deconstructing the myths while you're at it.  Then say a prayer thanking God for Howard Zinn for telling the history of those who don't fall under the category of dead white men*.
Until the lions have their historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.
If there's one museum I've been really excited about visiting in the last few years, it's this one.  I've had to read so many articles about it, some quite critical, and so I've been looking forward to it.  And it was worth it.  Simply put, this museum is about as open and inclusive as we Americans are capable of being, and my visit there confirmed so much about what I think about exhibit design, interpretation and curating material culture especially when so much is actually intangible.

I was visiting NMAI with two non-"Museum People" friends who are both practiced at reading culture and politics against the grain.  It's always fun to go to museums with folks like this and to also observe what they're experiencing because it helps me gain perspective on regular museum visitors -- I do my own visitor evaluation surveys when I visit museums with my friends.  And at NMAI, I think we pretty much agreed the introductory film was very well done, but it was also very well done propaganda.  But visiting this museum was a way of challenging our relationship to Native Americans -- three people from immigrant families -- we were aware of all of the broken treatieswhy sports teams have changed their names, and I've driven on I-90 near Buffalo quite a few times.  On the other hand, we'd seen Pocahontas and the word "papoose" is in our vocabulary with a smile.

Immediately I was struck by the gorgeous and generous pluralities of the interpretations.  Universes. Histories. Curators.  Better yet, community curators.  Teachings.  Nations.  Relations. And diseases and genocides.  We've always had a master narrative in museums, this gives an opportunity to have the master narrative and the narratives of the previously marginalized.

As I was impressed with the work of Jeff Thomas at the ROM, I can say now I'm a huge fan of Paul Chaat Smith.  Apparently I may be one of the last ones to get the memo, cause he's a big deal, but better late than never.  But the more important question here is how do I know now I'm a huge fan of Paul Chaat Smith? Because the labels have bylines!  Yes!  This is wonderful because the curator is no longer nameless and faceless, which I believe contributes to the current controversies about the disappearing curator and curator-as-concept, but rather is an actual human being.  Besides NMAI and the ROM, I've also seen attributable labels at the Brooklyn Museum.  Readers, where else have you seen labels with bylines? I'm curious.  There were so many good soundbites in the labels here, it made me so happy to read them and to revel in these other views of history.

Along the same lines of curators-with-a-face were the Community Curators.  How empowering!  And what a great way to bring some of the experts into the museum space!  So often in the Rusyn community I see people with inferiority complexes because they don't have Ph.D. after their name, when in fact they're just as expert about the topic because they actually live in the communities that the Ph.D.s need so that they can have something to study in the first place.  So let's bring the people from the community in and let them discuss what's important to them about their communities, and give them names and faces as well!

Community Curators in the Our Universes exhibit

But let's talk about the post-colonialism of this museum - in fact, of its very existence.  The aboriginal, indigenous, First Nations of this country were subjected to genocide and the horrors of colonialism right down to being marched across the country and fenced into reservations.  But now, with this museum, the aboriginal, indigenous, First Nations of this country have coöpted the same imperialist institution that used all sorts of exploitative means (ethnographic present, eugenics, anthropometry -- the long horrible list goes on) to justify their subjugation as a way of communicating the other sides of the story in a language the dead white man/kids of immigrant families multiculturally educated in American schools can understand.

One final thought is that the name of the museum is unfortunate, because it furthers the inaccurate name (that the dead white man gave) of aboriginal, indigenous, First Nations peoplesNot that it's an easy problem to solve, because it's not (hello, Musée du quai Branly).  But let's try to think of ways that we can help promote discussing groups by the way they self-identify instead of by the names dead white men give them.

Next time you're in Washington, DC -- go to this museum.  It's free and worth the visit.  OHHHH and how can I forget -- quite possibly the best museum cafeteria I've ever been to.  The menu is seasonal, fantastically unbelievably good and so well-thought-out.  You can get a cookbook at the museum, but as @shadow pointed out, finding ingredients may be difficult. So, I revise: it's free, worth the visit, and bring an appetite!

* I'm not against dead white men, per se, but am using the term rather tongue-in-cheekly here.  Don't take me too seriously.