Tag Archives: museums

Financial support for struggling museum workers

COVID-19 has been hard on museums–and especially so for museum workers who were already financially vulnerable when the pandemic hit. The folks at Museum Workers Speak are putting a fund together to help out folks in the profession who have been furloughed, laid off, or otherwise impacted. Click here to donate, and here to learn more or apply for support.

Please chip in a donation if you can. Thousands of dedicated, talented professionals keep American museums going, and too many of them work for low wages and without benefits. We can’t just toss them out and leave them and their families to ride out this crisis on their own with no income.

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Ship of Theseus, shark of Spielberg

You know that old thought experiment about the ship Theseus used to sail back to Athens from Crete? The story goes that the Athenians kept the ship as a relic, and as the original planks rotted they replaced them with new ones. This being Athens, it became the subject of a philosophical debate. If the ship kept deteriorating to the point that all the planks had to be replaced and none of the original wood was left, was it still the ship of Theseus?

For museum professionals, this question becomes practical. One of the things that draws people to history museums and historic sites is authenticity. Visitors want to have a firsthand, genuine encounter with the past. You’d think this would be a pretty straightforward matter. Either an object on display is real or a replica. Either something is the original or it isn’t.

But sometimes it gets complicated. An object might have undergone so much restoration and replacement over the years that you run into the same question as the Athenians. Is it really the room Washington slept in when the whole building has been gutted, restored, and stocked with reproduction furniture? Is it Billy the Kid’s original gun if the cylinder, grips, and trigger have been replaced?

And even when the materials or components are all original, the question of whether the object itself an original can be difficult to answer.

Take Bruce, for example. He’s the Jaws shark that just took up quarters above the escalator in the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, and the only surviving model cast from the original molds used to make the sharks in the movie.

The provenance is as solid as it gets. It’s undeniably an authentic object.

But it’s not from the film’s production. All three of the sharks that appeared in the movie had deteriorated by the time Universal Studios realized they had a hit on their hands. After the film’s release, they used the molds to cast a more durable shark in fiberglass and set it up as a photo op for studio visitors. This fourth Bruce is the one at the Academy Museum. After his tour of duty at Universal ended, he ended up in a junkyard for twenty-five years before getting trucked to the museum and hoisted up over the escalator.

The fiberglass Bruce never appeared in the movie, and played no role in the production; indeed, it didn’t even exist when the movie was made. But since it’s cast from the original molds and all the screen-used props are gone, it’s as close as you’re going to get. And it does date from that initial rush of Jaws mania following the movie’s release.

As a piece of memorabilia and an artifact of the history of cinema, it’s certainly significant and worthy of preservation. Is it an “original” Jaws shark? Is it really Bruce? Depends on how you approach the question.

And these are the sorts of questions that interpreters at history museums and historic sites face all the time. Authenticity isn’t always as simple as documentation and provenance. Sometimes it boils down to the very meanings we associate with the word “authentic.”

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WATE on historical happenings at LMU

YIKES! Has it really been that long since I’ve posted anything? I suppose it has, since we’ve been up to our eyeballs in the museum renovation at the ALLM.

Speaking of which, Knoxville’s ABC affiliate WATE came out last week to do a short piece on the museum, our reconstructed log village, and LMU’s own history. Here it is:

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

The ALLM staff on the museum’s transformation

The bad news is, LMU’s Homecoming had to switch to a virtual format this year because of COVID. The good news is, since we recorded a lot of the programming, you folks can watch the ALLM staff’s panel discussion about our big museum renovation. Here it is:

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A step inside the ALLM under construction

Here’s a little sneak peek the folks in LMU’s University Advancement division put together for us.

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Two TAM awards for ALLM in 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic may have kept Tennessee Association of Museums members from getting together this year, but it didn’t stop TAM from conferring its annual awards.  And I’m pleased to inform you that the ALLM took home recognitions for the second year in a row.

Our popular kids’ program, Tad’s Tots, picked up an Award of Excellence, and our fantastic program coordinator Natalie Sweet earned an Emerging Museum Professionals Award.

We’re looking forward to seeing all our TAM colleagues in person next year…and looking forward, too, to seeing visitors again once we complete our building project.

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Need online resources about presidential history?

There’s a good chance you do, since so many people are homebound right now.  Check out the White House Historical Association’s collection of resources from the nation’s presidential sites—virtual tours, blogs, educational material, you name it.  The ALLM is there, too, right at the top of the list of Lincoln sites.

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When museums fold, small towns and rural communities lose the most

According to the president of the American Association of Museums, as many as one-third of the museums that have closed for COVID-19 may never reopen.  That’s astonishing to contemplate.  And if it happens, I think it’s the small towns and rural communities that will lose most.

Although I work at a museum that has one of the largest private collections of its kind, it’s located in a region of low population density. Our county has about 32,000 residents, with a density of seventy-four people per square mile (something like half the density of the state as a whole).  There are only about 4,000 people in our hometown, and the closest towns north and south of us have just over 10,000 and 2,000 people, respectively.

Since we’re one of the more visible museums in the area, people rely on us for a wider range of functions than a glance at our mission statement might suggest. They’re not just coming to learn about Lincoln and the Civil War.  They come with inquiries about history as a whole, from the Archaic period to the Cold War…and with questions about genealogy, education, preservation, grant writing, tourism, etc., etc., etc.

Sometimes they come with questions that have nothing to do with history at all.  People bring in fossils, rock specimens, and archaeological material.  There are a lot of things we can’t identify, of course, but we can direct them to other institutions with the relevant expertise. We’re lucky to be a kind of conduit between local residents and the rest of the museum and academic world.

Perhaps more importantly, small towns and rural areas don’t always have the array of specialized services, facilities, and institutions that people in cities take for granted. A local museum can help fill the void.

At the museum where I’m employed, we’re proud to be a multipurpose institution for our region. We’re a homeschool classroom, a speaker’s bureau, a civic center, and a library.  We’ve hosted yoga sessions and political debates, scouting activities and voter registration drives, memorial services and Easter egg rolls, art workshops and reunions.  We have regulars who come by just to browse the gift shop for new reading material, since our town doesn’t have a bookstore on every corner.

When rural and small-town museums close, who will fill all these needs?  Who will provide all these services?

If you live in a small community, your local museum will need your support in the coming weeks: your donations, your engagement with online and remote programming, and your advocacy.  Take a few minutes to let your elected officials know how much that museum means to you, and if you can spare some money to help tide a neighborhood museum over, consider sending them a donation.

Downtown Sylva, NC. AbeEzekowitz / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

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Museums and historic sites need your help during the COVID-19 crisis

We were lucky at the ALLM.  When the coronavirus pandemic hit, we were already closed to the public because of our big construction project.  For a lot of other museums, though, it’s a real catastrophe.

In fact, the COVID-19 outbreak is costing American museums, historic sites, zoos, and aquariums something like $33 million per day.  And these institutions can’t just turn off the lights, lock their doors, and wait for the crisis to pass.  Collections have to be monitored, historic buildings have to be maintained and secured, and (with so many kids now doing all their learning at home) their online programming is more vital than ever.

Like other sectors of the economy, museums and historic sites are in desperate need of support to keep their heads above water during this emergency.  The fallout could be disastrous—as in one quarter of all museums closing permanently if they can’t start bringing visitors in again soon.  We simply can’t let that happen.  This is a $50 billion industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people, and immeasurably enriches the lives of many millions more.

The American Association for State and Local History is asking people who care about these institutions to get in touch with their legislators and urge them to back economic relief legislation for nonprofit museums, along with a temporary charitable deduction to boost the donations museums depend on.  They’ve even put together some talking points you can use when calling lawmakers.

Please read AASLH’s appeal, and then take a few minutes to get in touch with your representative and senators.

Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. Photo by Dave Pape via Wikimedia Commons

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When remarkable artifacts meet exceptional stagecraft

A museum visit can be such a powerful experience that you walk out of a gallery feeling like the world has shifted on its axis.  Sometimes it’s because you see an artifact so remarkable that it stops you dead in your tracks.  Sometimes it’s because of exceptional stagecraft on the part of the exhibit designers.  And sometimes it’s both, a combination of artifact and stagecraft so outstanding that it knocks the wind right out of you.

It happened to me a couple of weeks ago at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  The artifact was Emmett Till’s coffin.  (If you’re unfamiliar with the story of how it ended up at the NMAAHC, click here and here.)

It’s not just the object itself, but the presentation that packs such an emotional punch.  It’s in its own small gallery, set up to look like the front of a church.  You can hear a choir performing.  You line up with other visitors and file past the coffin, just as you would if you were one of the mourners paying your respects in Chicago more than six decades ago.  In a small anteroom there’s a short video with interviews from Till’s mother and other people who knew him.

Sometimes I’m skeptical of attempts to recreate or generate the emotions and perceptions of people caught up in past historical circumstances in a museum setting.  But I think the Emmett Till exhibit works because the emotions it stirs up in visitors are the very same emotions that made Till’s murder and funeral such a watershed.  The sight of his body confronted people with the monstrous nature of racism.  And the exhibit serves the same purpose.  It turns the history of racism into something concrete, immediate, and individual.  Putting the coffin on exhibit in the NMAAHC accomplishes the same thing in the present that putting it on exhibit in a church effected for people living at the time.

And the effect is magnified by the setup.  Visitors are going through the same physical motions as the mourners themselves, standing in line and filing past in order to see, to bear witness for themselves.  The distance between the 1950s and the present—between that Chicago church and the museum gallery that represents a section of it—collapses.  For a few moments, you forget that you’re a tourist in a museum.

I watched visitors stand there in the anteroom and literally weep, while others would spontaneously walk by and comfort them.  I’ve never seen an exhibit generate such emotion, let alone prompt strangers to embrace one another.  Lots of exhibits recreate or simulate historic settings, but this is one of the few that deserves to be called transportive—and transformational.

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