Wednesday, November 17, 2010

First Person Museum Exhibit Review

The First Person Museum exhibit at the Painted Bride Art Center has on display the treasured “things” of everyday people who live in and around the Philadelphia area. The exhibit is set up so that each object, protected in a glass case, is displayed in a kind of natural setting. So, for instance, a woman’s cook-pot is displayed on a kitchen table, and a man’s t-shirt is displayed in an open dresser drawer. Each object is accompanied by a 50 word “object history” that gives the historical context for the object, and is either additionally accompanied by a similar length story from the object’s owner, or simply a short description of the object’s importance, supplemented by either video or audio media.The exhibit is housed in three separate spaces. The first two flow together, and are really just one large space divided into two levels. The first room is a long rectangular gallery space, and the second is the lofted area above it. The third space is a room off to the side of the entrance, that holds three of the objects from the exhibit, along with a wall of photos and one sentence captions from participants whose objects were not picked to be included in the exhibit. The theme that orients the display spaces of the museum is one of familiarity and home. The objects are placed as they might be found in one’s own home, and it  resonates that the focus of this exhibit is on the individual and their one particular item.
While the intent of the design theme is no doubt to evoke feelings of familiarity to the viewer, “Oh, that looks like my favorite [insert important object here],” it somewhat misses the mark. The atmosphere of the display space is equally inviting and off-putting. While the objects are displayed in logical settings, affording the viewer a sense of familiarity and ease of navigation through the space, they are laid out in a way that is conscious that an audience is looking. The atmosphere of the exhibit is almost like a house that has been tidied up for company to come, and it has the effect of alienating sincere interaction from the viewer. The furniture and decorations are reminiscent of hotel room decor, something that reminds one of a home like space, but falls short with its aseptic design and sparseness. It is as if the viewer knows they are supposed to feel at home in the setting, but would never live in a house so devoid of color or personal attention.
Much of this problem of “atmosphere” most likely stemmed from the time constraint of putting together this exhibit, so that it could be opened in time to be included with the many other project that First Person Arts, the museum sponsor, was launching at the same time. Also, since this exhibit was merely a prototype for the concept of the First Person Museum, it can be assumed that a more permanent exhibit with the same theme might be less sparse, and appear more like a fully furnished setting. The funding for this exhibit came from grants from local community foundations, and so this too must have put a constraint on the budget available, especially just for a kind of “test-run” exhibit as this was.
Another detail that was neglected was the thoughtful and conscientious use of space. The fact that three objects had to be housed in a room that was physically removed from the other space greatly reduced the fluidity of the exhibit. What makes this so disappointing, is that the lofted area above the main gallery space was largely unused. It housed a sofa and a television (that streamed all of the videos, which were already playing at their respective object stations), and a small desk where visitors were invited to write their own stories about their important “stuff” and post them on a cork-board (an identical space was included at the entrance to the main gallery space). While the intention of the space was to provide a quiet place for visitors to re-watch the video media that was part of the display has merit, in light of the fact three of the objects had to be shunted off into a separate room, the exhibit would have greatly benefited from a repurposing of this space to house the other objects.
That being said, some things functioned really well in the display space. The captions for the objects were a really effective way to incorporate text into the display space. The bright colors, text layout, and placement of the object histories and stories all added to the viewing experience. The fact that the captions were often at eye level, and not necessarily tiny blurbs directly next to the object made them easier to read and think about than traditional exhibit labels.  Also, the media, whether audio or visual, really helped to connect the person’s story with the object. It was refreshing and innovative to actually hear the person tell why their “thing” was so special. This exhibit really does convey it’s tagline “Objects Tell Stories.” In fact, the focus of the exhibit seems to be on the individual and the story, much less on the histories included for the objects. In this sense, the exhibit could be considered more of an art exhibit, that provides historical context for the pieces, rather than a history exhibit per se.
The concept for, and implementation of the First Person Museum is unique. It allows the audience an “inside look” at people’s things, and what makes them important. The interactive space, where people can sit down, listen to audio, share their own stories, is truly in keeping with the museum’s aim: to elevate the stories of everyday people. The idea that you can learn a lot about a person, and a culture through the things that people prize, is an important message, one that the museum does much to further in the public discourse. While the museum did create the sense that people’s objects and the stories they tell about them are important, certain facets of the exhibit could have been reworked to help achieve the goals of the museum better.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Assignment #5: Object Captions

So, here they are, finally. My object captions are done, what a great relief.

1) About Pens:
Ballpoint pens trace their origins to reeds dipped in inks, first used by early cultures in present-day India and Egypt. Pen forms have evolved from reeds, to quills, to fountain pens, to the modern ballpoint and rollerball pens. Pens constituted a $3.1 billion industry in 2008 in the US.
By, Emily Afflitto


1a) About Pens:
Ballpoint pens trace their origins to reeds dipped in inks, first used by early cultures in present-day India and Egypt. While written communication seems to be slowly eclipsed by typed communication, the pen remains important in American lives. Pens constituted a $3.1 billion industry in 2008 in the US.
By, Emily Afflitto

2) About Business Gifts:
Pens are common gifts given to business professionals. They can be signifiers of “inking” an important business deal, gifts to commemorate a promotion, or tokens of thanks to a retiring employee. The pen is often viewed as a power symbol as a result of this association with the business world.
By, Emily Afflitto

3) About Symbolism:
Pens have appeared in symbolic ways in religion, literature, education and politics. Interestingly, studies show that teachers tend to grade papers more harshly when using a pen with red ink. Pens usually signify power, influence, and knowledge. A Montblanc pen, like this one, is a modern status symbol.
By, Emily Afflitto

4) About Montblanc:
The Montblanc Meisterstuck (German for masterpiece), was debuted in 1924 and quickly became the most recognizable pen manufactured by this German luxury goods company. Montblanc offers special edition pens in memory of popular icons of the arts such as Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, and John Lennon.
By, Emily Afflitto

5) About Writing:
A pen is one of the most recognizable writing instruments. Written language was first used in religion and commercial exchanges, but eventually became its own art form. The knowledge of writing was often a highly valuable and guarded skill, until relatively recently. Several languages exist today with no written form.
By, Emily Afflitto

Monday, September 27, 2010

Assignment #4: Exhibit Design

This week, we’re supposed to think about how we would design the First Person Museum, if given the chance, and outline a plan, using Parman’s six steps.1
Step 1: Mission Statement, Take-home Message, and Storyline
I’m actually a fan of the idea and mission behind First Person Arts and the First Person Museum, but here I’ll attempt to put it into my own words. In my idealized museum the mission statement might be that: The FPM is dedicated to sharing the stories and histories of everyday, yet immensely important, objects that belong to the varied members of the Philadelphia community. The take-home message from the museum would be something along the lines of: Even the most unassuming objects can have real importance to their owners and all objects come with a social/cultural/political/historical context that can be fascinating. And the storyline of the exhibit would be close to something saying: Ordinary objects, even in their everyday context, are important, meaningful, and can teach us a lot about the culture or society they are found in (or are absent from).
Step 2: Organization
I think it would be really interesting to have people move through the exhibit going from objects that are seemingly (key word here) the most valuable or important, to the least. My hopes are that in doing so that people might re-evaluate what makes something important or special or valuable to them, and to the larger community in which they live.
Step 3: Content
This is the best part about the FPM, the content is whatever is important to the contributors, and I wouldn’t rework this idea even if I could. Also, I would keep the pairing of the object story and the object history as the amount of “factual” information displayed with each object.
Step 4: Motivate and Engage
Interactive areas are my favorite part of museums (aren’t they everyones?) In my  idealized FPM there would be tons of interactive areas, where people can touch different stuffed animals or dolls from different times and places, or can look through catalogues of passport images or maps, or maybe places where the visitors can write with different types of pens, or tie-dye their own t-shirts! (Okay some of these are more realistic than others, in fact most aren’t really that realistic at all. Surprisingly my favorite part of museums was the hardest part for me to incorporate into my own.)
I do know however, that I think it would be awesome that if a the end of the exhibit, while walking towards the exit, the walls were blank white, and all the visitors were given markers and asked to write what they would include, if given the chance. It would give people a chance to feel like they were participating, and might give other visitors more insight into what is important to others in their community.
Step 5: Look and Feel
I love the idea of having the objects displayed in their “natural settings”. But I want everything else to be bright colors, and bold design. I want the decor to be over the top and maybe even a little flamboyant, to really emphasize that the important objects in this museum are the more practical, mundane ones.
Step 6: Blue-print
I did my best with my limited artistic ability and aptitude for computer blue-printing to come up with my idea of what my FPM would look like (without spatial or financial restraints of course.)

1) Parman, Alice. Exhibit Makeovers: Do-It-Yourself Exhibit Planning. 2010. History News; Volume 65.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Assignment #3: Object Social/Cultural Context

I’ve decided that the best way to fulfill this assignment is to think about my object, Bill’s pen, in a literal sense. It is a pen. Yes, its also a luxury Montblanc Meisterstuck (German for masterpiece), but that, I think, is second to its basic identity as the fundamental writing tool. This week, we’re supposed to discuss the cultural or social context of our objects, and there are so many different cultural references to pens that my head is spinning.
There’s the ever menacing “red pen” that is ubiquitous with failing exam grades, and harsh comments on carefully constructed essays, familiar to students all across America. I’m even fairly sure I’ve read somewhere that seeing red ink on a graded assignment makes students feel worse about their score, regardless of how well they do. While I can’t provide a reference for that statement, from my own personal experience its all too true.
I could talk about the implied symbolism of pens, and in particular, pens as gifts (in fact, Bill’s very own pen was a gift from a good friend). Pens are supposedly power symbols, possibly even evoking images of masculinity1 (John Irwin even goes so far as to reference it in a phallic way).2 I can definitely see the connection to power, it’s kind of a way to show the world that you write your own destiny, so to speak. Giving someone a gift of a pen is a common tradition in business relationships, and in the context of pens being power symbols this makes sense. Bill’s pen was gifted to him after he got a promotion at his job. There is also the connotation of an expensive pens as “a status symbol, a sign of intelligence and education”3 and that makes sense too, with the historical context of pens and scribes (hint hint: last week’s assignment).
Pens show up in politics and diplomacy too. How about the common saying “the pen is mightier than the sword”?4 Woodrow Wilson used that saying on one of his campaign buttons during the 1916 election.Strangest of all pop-culture references perhaps, is the persistent rumor circling the Internet (and I’ve heard it from other people and places as well...Bill!) that the favorite and only pen used by Hitler was the Montblanc Meisterstuck. Ironic, when you consider that the Montblanc logo on the top of these pens is basically a stylized Star of David.
So what does this all mean? I’m not sure, there’s a lot to get through here, and even more that I’ve failed to say. But, what I can say with certainty is that the imagery associated with pens has deep cultural connections. And I think for Americans, pens have evolved to symbolically represent the virtues of knowledge or learning, intellect, and power (whether it be social, economic, or political). 
1- Bruce-Mitford, Miranda.  “The Ilustrated Book of Signs and Symbols,” Dorling Kindersley Limited, London, 2004. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Assignment #2: Object Historical Context of Bill's Pen

A fine writing pen conjures up many images in my mind, mostly of important business men in tailored suits. Or maybe of my grandfather, who used to carry a nice pen around with him, the same one he used for the crossword every morning. In my mind at least, a good, sturdy, maybe even a little fancy, pen is the mark of an era gone by. A time when people wrote letters, signed checks, and there was no such thing as emails or online shopping. In my all too vivid imagination, the quintessential owners of Montblanc pens were dignified professionals, or scholars, or business moguls. Montblanc pens were marketed, from the beginning, as finely crafted luxury pens1. So it stands to reason those who owned them were most likely upper middle class. I think this remains true to this day. These pens don’t run cheap, and the fact that so much can be done in our modern world without touching a pen to paper makes me think that those who own these pens still see them as a status symbol. You’re average Joe doesn’t carry around a nice pen, that he wants back when you borrow it. He uses a cheap Bic pen, one that’s chewed on the end, and came in a pack of twelve. Certainly looking at Bill’s pen, you can tell how well made it is, you can tell the quality of the materials used, that it was made to last, and this leads me to many of my conclusions about who might have owned a pen like it. Someone who cares about quality, that was thoughtful (or perhaps outdated) enough to still use a pen to get things done, and wants the distinctive Montblanc logo sticking out of their shirt pocket. 
However, there’s another way to look at this. What if, when I looked at Bill’s pen, I didn’t see the white star logo; I didn’t see the classic style of a by-gone era it reminds me of? What if I saw a writing utensil? What if I saw it in its most basic form? Then maybe its ownership has changed over time. The first pens, in that most literal sense, were ancient. The Egyptians were using hollow reeds and inks as pens more than six thousand years ago.2 Since then the technology of pens has changed dramatically, but so has their use and ownership. I’m under the impression, from my humble historical studies, that writing in ancient times was very rare, reserved for the scribe, and very few others. It was used for the most important purposes; whether it was creating records, or consolidating religious texts, its use was very official. Those who could write, who could fully put to use a writing instrument, a pen, would expand exponentially over time. In today’s world, people from all walks of life use pens. Today the pen is used by moody teenagers to record their angst in journals, by students to copy notes or a teacher’s words of advice, by a bored cashier to doodle on an old receipt, to scrawl a quick note in a get well soon card for a coworker, or to sign a mortgage for a couple’s first home together. It seems that once mankind found one use for a pen, we were determined to find them all.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Assignment #1: Object Description of Bill's Pen

My object, a Montblanc Meisterstuck pen, belongs to Bill. The pen could be basically described as a typical ball point pen; it certainly would appear to the passerby as an average pen in shape and design. Even its color and weight could be described as typical. It is in the subtle details, that one can truly appreciate the craftsmanship that went into its making, and the classic beauty of this pen. It is approximately 6 inches long, and is a little less than a half an inch in diameter. The official Montblanc website (which provided me a wealth of information on this pen, its production, and its history) lists the materials as the barrel of the pen being constructed of black resin, and the gold accents of the pen being made of 18K gold. The pen’s adornments include three gold rings at the top, middle, and bottom of the pen, and a gold plated clip. The gold ring around the center of the pen, where the two barrels of the pen meet, is engraved with the words: “Montblanc” and “Meisterstuck.” The top of the pen has a domed cap, with the Montblanc logo: a white, rounded-edged, six-point star, reminiscent of a star of David.
According to the Montblanc website, this particular model of pen began being produced in 1924, and production of all pens takes place at their headquarters in Hamburg, Germany. This means that Bill’s pen could have been manufactured any time after that, and shipped to the US for retail. Since I did not get an exact date as to when this pen was gifted to Bill, only an estimation of approximately 20 years ago, I can only assume that the pen was manufactured shortly before its initial purchase. This seems likely because, as many Google searches on “Montblanc pens” have lead me to discover, these are a very popular and highly sought after brand of pens. As such, they are most likely produced regularly and this particular style of pen, the Meisterstuck, would have been readily available since its debut in 1924.
However, though I mention that this is a popular brand of pen, that is not to diminish its physical or sentimental value. As the Montblanc website proudly proclaims their pens are all “crafted by masters of their craft with sure instinct and highest skills.” The painstaking process of production for these pens contains upwards of 100 steps before completion, from gold strip rolling, to embossing, to quality assurance testing. In fact, this particular type of pen can only be purchased in select boutiques or directly from the website, (or on eBay, if you are searching for a deal). The website even instructs potential customers to call a concierge, via a 1-800 number, to obtain pricing. Through some basic “ebay searching” I got the vague price range of about $200-300 dollars for one of these unique writing tools. Unfortunately I cannot verify the validity of these price ranges, and have no real way of knowing the “going rate” for one of these at the time it was purchased for Bill.