Monthly Archives: August 2016

Object lessons in museums and the humanities

Last week I got an object lesson—quite literally, since it was a lesson with objects—in how valuable university museums and the humanities can be.

As you may recall, this semester I have the tremendous good fortune of doing my graduate assistantship at the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture.  I’m helping out with the museum’s academic programs, which means I get to work with university classes that use the collection and exhibits as teaching tools.  One of the neat things about working at the McClung is the fact that the collection is so eclectic: Native American archaeology, Egyptian artifacts, fossils, early modern maps, firearms, malacological specimens, decorative arts from every corner of the globe, you name it.  The possibilities for teaching with the museum’s holdings are pretty much endless.

Which brings me to last week’s object lesson.  My supervisor, who’s both an art historian and an extraordinarily gifted museum educator, hosted a group of graduate students for some critical examination of the McClung’s most impressive pieces, like this Buddha statue dating from the Ming Dynasty.

IMG_1903

Now, here’s the cool part.  This wasn’t a class in art history, Chinese civilization, or religion.  It was a nursing class, and the students were there to hone their observational and communication abilities.  A lot of the same skills involved in learning to evaluate works of art and articulate what you observe when you examine an object are the same skills physicians use in diagnosis and other aspects of patient care.

Art museums, it turns out, are great places to train physicians.  When university museums like the McClung or UVa’s Fralin Museum of Art team up with medical schools, the results are both real and measurable:

The Clinician’s Eye Program—using art exposure to help medical students build their observational and diagnostic ‘toolkit’—was launched in 2013 in partnership with U.Va.’s School of Medicine. Based on similar programs at leading medical schools, the program includes interactive tours of objects in the Museum, as well as drawing exercises that strengthen communication skills. Pre- and post-testing demonstrated a measurable impact; 90% of participants reported improved observational skills, increased tolerance for ambiguity, or heightened communication skills, and corresponding testing revealed a marked improvement in these abilities after one 2-hour workshop.

So when the rubber hits the road, when everything is about the bottom line, and when every academic and cultural endeavor must justify its own existence, what good are museums, the humanities, art, and all that other squishy stuff?  Well, for starters, they just might end up saving your life.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Museums and Historic Sites

It’s almost time for the Sevier Soirée

Marble Springs State Historic Site’s annual fundraiser has gotten more and successful every year, and the 2016 Sevier Soirée is shaping up to be our best one yet.  If you’re in the Knoxville area, I hope you’ll join us on Friday, Sept. 2 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. for a southern dinner, music, a silent auction, and an evening stroll through the historic farmstead of Tennessee’s first governor.

Tickets are $50 per person, and are available through our website or by mail at P.O. Box 20195, Knoxville, TN 3794.  Make your reservation by August 26th.  If you’d like some more information, shoot an e-mail to info@marblesprings.net or call (865) 573-5508.

This is a great opportunity to see Marble Springs if you’ve never paid a visit before, and for those of you who have been, it’s a wonderful way to enjoy the site after hours.

Leave a comment

Filed under Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

On the advantages of being a (somewhat) older grad student

A few days ago #firstsevenjobs was a trending topic on Twitter.  It prompted an interesting conversation among some historians about the diverse paths people have pursued before grad school, and the pros and cons of entering a graduate program later in life vs. the “traditional” route of going straight through from college to Ph.D.

This is actually a subject on which I can speak with a certain degree of authority, because I’ve experienced grad school as both a traditional student in my early twenties and as an older student hitting the books again after a hiatus.  I was more or less fresh out of college (but for a year’s employment) when I did my M.A., but I worked in public history and picked up adjunct gigs for a while before heading back for my Ph.D.  Granted, I’m not that much older than a “traditional” graduate student, but I’m not exactly a spring chicken, either.  My baseline movie version of Batman is still Michael Keaton.

So which was harder, being a younger or older grad student in history?  Personally, I’ve found the Ph.D. experience to be less stressful, even though I’ve had a higher class load as a doctoral student than I ever did while working on my M.A.  And the decisive factor has been the time I had to simmer after finishing my master’s degree.  I’ve read more, I’ve thought about my interests more, and I have a much better idea about how to integrate those interests into the historiography and contextualize them than I did in my early twenties.  It’s made a world of difference.

I’ve also had more time to develop my skills as a communicator and writer.  Practice is everything when it comes to sharpening your prose, and being older means you’ve had more time to practice.

Some people say that you don’t have as much capacity to do coursework and absorb information after you get older, but my experience has been the opposite.  A graduate education in history isn’t really about learning new “facts.”  What counts is breadth, depth, and maturity of thinking, not how many terms you can memorize in a night of cramming.  It’s a form of learning that favors perspective more than plasticity.

Now, all this comes with two important caveats.  First, I’m an older student, but I’m also a bachelor.  That means I can’t speak to the difficulty of balancing grad school with family responsibilities, which would be an issue a lot of older grad students have to deal with.

Second, the age difference between my younger classmates and I isn’t substantial enough to be generational, so the issue of being so much older than my peers that I have nothing in common with them is not something I’ve had to deal with.  But I can say that there are a few students in my department who are old enough to have adult children, and age differences haven’t kept any of us from becoming a very close-knit group.  The common experience of going through the program more or less overrides whatever distinctions of age, background, and religion we have.

The upshot is that if you ask me if it’s hard going back for a terminal degree after ten, fifteen, or twenty years out of the classroom, I’d say this: Grad school is tough on anybody, but the nature of the historical discipline is such that being long in the tooth can actually give you a bit of an edge.

All this is assuming, of course, that you’ve put some of those years out of the classroom to good use.  Your age in and of itself is less important than your mastery of content, the perceptiveness of your conclusions, and the willingness to work hard.  And that’s true whether you’re a retiree or Doogie Howser.

1 Comment

Filed under Graduate School

Do theme parks need preservation?

Late last month the Walt Disney Company announced the closure of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at the California park to make way for a Guardians of the Galaxy ride.  That decision upset some people.  A petition to save the attraction has racked up over 30,000 signatures.

As someone who’s both resistant to change and a theme park junkie, I can sympathize with people who want to keep the Tower of Terror open.  I’m still peeved at Universal Orlando for closing Kongfrontation even though I like the Mummy-themed coaster that replaced it, and I might never forgive them for dismantling the Jaws ride to build yet another Harry Potter area.

The original Tower of Terror opened at Walt Disney World in Florida in 1994.  The California version didn’t get up and running until 2004, so the folks trying to persuade Disney to keep it open will be harder pressed to make their case than if they were advocating on behalf of a classic attraction with decades of tradition behind it.

An aerial view of Disneyland, 1963. EditorASC at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But that’s not to say that older attractions are untouchable.  Snow White’s Adventure was one of the Florida park’s original rides, making its debut when the Magic Kingdom opened on October 1, 1971.  You’d think the ride’s age and the fact that it’s based on Disney’s first full-length animated feature might have been enough to keep it open.  In 1994 Disney gave it a major overhaul and a name change, and then closed it completely in 2012.  And Snow White isn’t the only longstanding attraction to get the axe.  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was another 1971 ride that went the way of the dodo, and Disneyland’s PeopleMover closed in 1995 after nearly three decades of operation.

When you consider that Disneyland opened more than sixty years ago and Disney World forty-five, it doesn’t seem too out of place to start thinking of them as places of potential historic significance.  The value of some of the parks’ attractions and architectural features doesn’t just stem from their age.  For example, the Enchanted Tiki Room, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Hall of Presidents feature pioneering examples of robotics technology.  The monorail systems at the Florida and California parks are interesting landmarks in the history of transportation and innovation.  And if a building can take on historic significance because it’s architecturally unique or an example of a particular style, maybe it makes sense to call Spaceship Earth and Sleeping Beauty Castle historic landmarks.

It’s possible that a conversation about places like Disneyland is one worth having in the historic preservation community.  But any effort to restrict Disney’s ability to demolish or modify their attractions is going to run up against the same issues preservationists face when they’re dealing with any other property owners, except this particular property owner has an army of lawyers at its disposal.  I wouldn’t want to see the Jungle Cruise get bulldozed, but I wouldn’t want to be the preservationist who has to go ten rounds with the Mouse House, either.

Leave a comment

Filed under Historic Preservation