Monday, May 17, 2010

Anthropology Ethnographic project

Beth Gilmore


Ethnographic project for Molly Graves awesome class

“Look at this (a pocket watch). It's worthless - ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless,” said Beloq, a character in the feature film “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc.” Beloq refers to how everything that was old was once new and commonplace. And everything that is in a museum was once part of a modern culture. Today, people tend to view museums as being about the past and galleries as being about the future. Everything that is around us now could be in a museum some day. At Belmont mansion, the employees look at the dance cards, the luggage tags for the first time someone leaves home, and the scrapbooks. They are all souvenirs. The word “museum” comes from Latin and also Greek, and means “temple or place of the muses.” Museums are dedicated to the arts and protecting collections of all different kinds of things from the past. They preserve memory. Galleries preserve something else entirely. By focusing on the differences between the people who go to galleries and the people who go to museums, one may derive meaning or a sense of connection between the two.

Museums are collections. To be a museum, an organization technically needs to have a collection. Galleries do not have permanent collections, but rather show bodies of work temporarily, which represent artists. Museums are examples of public collections. There is evidence of humans collecting as far back in time as human life has been found. There are paintings on cave walls. Archaeologists find objects made of shells and bones. The very terms hunter and gatherer speak to humans as being collectors. In the 18th and 19th centuries museums became public, as opposed to being private recently. Most of the time showing exotic finds from far away brought back to Western Europe. In some ways, collecting is a reflection of a human’s need to control the world around him or her by controlling the objects that represent what they desire.

To investigate the differences in perceptions around museums and galleries, I put together a brief survey of the following questions:

What is a museum?

What is an art gallery?

How are these two places different from each other?

What purpose do these places serve in society, civilization, etc?

Why do we as people collect things?

What do you collect?

Responses came in through email and twitter from a broad range of individuals, from all walks of life. Their responses are outlined and explored below.

Nashville Native, Film Collector

"Galleries are dirtier than museums and they are more likely to provoke arguments and hugs. Museums are cleaner and safer, so that conflicts are patiently mediated and thus encased in emotional bubble-wrap. There are no hugs," says Tom Wills, who has a large collection of 16 mm films. Wills is a Nashville native and a supporter of the arts in his community. His perspective is amusing and unexpected. It shows how the humanity is removed from object in a museum and emotions are on full display in galleries.

Pastor, Theologian

"I don't care to go to a museum more than once or twice a year but I have always wanted to live in towns that have art museums. I think the presence of a museum or gallery has a positive effect on local culture, " says Ken Locke, who once collected coins. Locke is the Pastor of the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN. Locke was born in Hong Kong, served in the army, came from a conservative background, and became a Presbyterian minister later in life, which wasn’t part of his original life plan. His response is interesting as it gives the perspective of someone who is not immersed in the arts. His response is surprising because his life experiences wouldn’t necessarily lead him to that conclusion.

Tweep, Stranger

In answer to the question, "Why do we as people collect things?" which was posted on Twitter, follower "Pete Newcurator" posted the following response: "Too big a question to ask. Status? Addictive materialism? Intense interest?" "Pete Newcurator" makes a good point. In the past putting away grain for the winter, grain for the harvest, fruit canning, and preservation of food over the course of winter was not only a status symbol but security for the lives of your family members. A happy home has a full pantry. Many responses, like this one from a communication and marketing method developed within the last two years, came from surprising places. Although "Pete Newcurator’s" real name is unknown, a question like was intriguing to a total stranger. Collecting this information is in of itself a collection.


In answer to the question, "Why do we as people collect things?" Russel Johnson replies, "Oh boy. I'm sure there are lots of reasons, many underwritten by some form of denying death. I get a feeling of safety from gathering and preserving things, and it feels like a way of expressing values, even if only to myself. Motivations are notoriously hard to untangle, of course, even one's own." Johnson is a writer for the Nashville Scene, who writes primarily about classical music. He calls himself "one of those complete-set people." His response is reminiscent of the Egyptian tombs they built to honor their dead and they placed objects around them from their everyday life to make their transition into the afterworld an easy one. They fulfilled their quest for immortality in that when modern archaeologists have discovered their tombs their stories are told again. Many religions have similar themes of immortality. It is actually hard to find a religion that doesn’t have some reference to immortality. The Egyptian book of the dead is fairly detailed in providing maps and detailed information for new arrivals. People had personalized books of the dead made by their families to guide them in the afterlife.

Historian, Museum Professional

"A museum is typically a place where items are exhibited, collected, and used to educate the public. Typically these items are held in public trust by a non-profit or for-profit entity or business," says John Lancaster, who collects Parian ware, typically statuary and vases which is a ceramic material to simulate marble and statues that are typically copies of larger marble originals. Lancaster is a museum professional. His perspective is both modern and traditional, and direct. It feels the most like what an “old school” museum person might say.

Visual Artist, Motor Cycle Enthusiast

"Galleries bring artists together. Museums bring collectors together. Historically, we assume that both galleries and museums carry some authority in validating the merit or value of an artist's work," said Mary Addison Hackett, who collects rocks and rides a motorcycle. Hackett is a professional visual artist. When institutions choose to put objects on public display, they are speaking with the authority of their education and cultural knowledge in order to do all of the things Hackett has mentioned. There can be a social hierarchy involved in these processes.

Neurophysiologist, Podcaster

“Museums are like our long-term memory, history books brought to life. Galleries serve a purpose helping to drive art forward. Without galleries, art would not be supported as easily, and artists would have a much harder time being artists,” says Kirsten Sanford, PhD, who collects spoons from traveling and science-based books she receives from publishers. Sanford has an extensive background in lab science (Neurophysiology) and broadcasts the weekly podcasts “This Week in Science” and “Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour.” This perspective seems rare, coming from a scientist, because they are not often asked their opinions on art. Her points are consistent with many of the responses collected.

Museum Curator

“Galleries give new artists an opportunity to test whether or not they can communicate with the public, and whether the public finds anything in their work that speaks to them on a personal level. Museums are places that celebrate the paths that lead us to where we are now. They trace the lives of artists, movements, thoughts, science, history, and cultures. We collect to bring beauty into our everyday life, to celebrate life’s journey, and preserve what we find important,” says Jim Hoobler, who is the curator of the Tennessee State Museum. He is so smart.

Visual Artist

“The museum tells a story, often attempting to fit its exhibitions into a larger historical context. It has an important role in telling us what stories are important and what stories can be left out. The art gallery has more immediate monetary interests and is perhaps prone to fashionability a little more than a museum. It serves a community by exhibiting local and contemporary artists, and by contributing to a place’s contemporary culture,” says Matt Christy, who collects junk, paper, magazines, rocks, shells, and people. Christy is a visual artist, an art writer, and a graduate of Watkins College of Art and Design. The present cultural component Christy is talking about is important. Galleries are where museum collections of the future will come from. Then again, so are landfills. Landfills are where the archaeologists will dig in the future.

High School Student

“Museums are about things that have already happened. Galleries show new art. I like galleries better,” says 15-year-old Jasmine Rich, who collects pillows and cat figures. Rich is currently a student at Hillsboro High School. She displays the perspective of a young person, but is unique in the fact that she has been going to galleries and museums her entire life. Other people her age don’t have the knowledge of art communities like she does. Art communities in both the forms of museums and galleries are beneficial to children in that they can change a child’s view of the world.

Museum people do not always understand gallery people. Gallery people do not always understand museum people. This applies to both employees and patrons, who may view themselves as being associated with one more so than the other. Like scientists in the age of enlightenment having two different words for what we now call oxygen, museums and galleries often deal with the same thing although they may have a hard time agreeing on it. Of the different kinds of people asked, scientists, preachers, and curators, the responses were surprising. It seems the present is the connection and the bridge between museums and galleries. People are the connection between the past and the future. “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc” speaks to this clearly in Beloq’s archetypal response to Indiana: “You're about to become a permanent addition to this archaeological find. Who knows? In a thousand years, even you may be worth something.”