Cultural institution visits: Part two of the Cummer Museum

Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens

Cultural Heritage:
The Cummer seems to take seriously the notion that museums can help to preserve cultural heritage on a global, national, and local level. In the vaguest sense of this definition, the museum helps to preserve and make accessible objects ranging from decorative and functional antiquities to European Old Master paintings to contemporary works; additionally, the gardens are preserved as they were in the 1950s and 60s, with only the surrounding Jacksonville skyline altering the original experience of the space. These objects and spaces have obvious value as pieces that recount human experience through diverse time periods and cultures, but there is also more depth to the Cummer’s stewardship, reflecting ideas put forth by UNESCO (2002) which state that “today, the notion of heritage is an open one which can develop new objects and put forward new meanings as it reflects living culture rather than an ossified image of the past” (p. 7). This idea is evident in the events and slogan of the 50-year celebration, which is “Celebrating 50 Years by Looking Forward” and includes both restoration and highlighting of historical aspects of the museum and new pieces and interpretations, as well as renewed attention to the cultural identity of the surrounding neighborhood community and the current development of a new social space to engage visitors.

UNESCO further states that “a museum works for the endogenous development of social communities whose testimonies it conserves while lending a voice to their cultural aspirations” (p. 29), and this is evident in the inclusion of meaningful exchanges between the museum and its visitors, as well as support for the development of original works, programs, and exhibitions that reflect the community. For example, the sponsorship of an exhibition of work by and about the local neighborhood showcases one way that the museum is attempting to occupy a space of dialog and creation, and it illustrates the efforts to both preserve the architectural and community heritage and encourage reflection and growth. I would also suggest that this very partnership underscores the UNESCO concern for historic cities (p. 25)—or in this case a historic neighborhood within a relatively young city—by highlighting the voices, experiences, and artistic expressions of residents related to this area and the preservation organization that they operate, and by seeking to inform and educate about the “heritage and its accumulation over time – the history of its buildings, streets, districts and residents [which] should be regarded as the force and foundation of all sustainable development of historic cities and of their future” (p. 25). This museum definitely supports and engages in responsible development with an eye to both the past and the future.

Reactions to the collection and museum experience:
I would be remiss in not beginning my discussion here by acknowledging the extreme care the Cummer Museum has taken to acknowledge and encourage users, which is something not always evident in an art museum even if it is understood that this is a core mission. For starters, the educational gallery space offers opportunities for conventional learning as well as art production and experimentation with materials. It is designed for children, but is highly engaging for adults as well. It teaches concepts of texture, space, material, color, historical significance, and so forth through exploratory activities, such as larger-than-life 3-D breakdowns of a painting that a user can walk through to get a better sense of different picture planes, or opportunities to touch fluffy, soft, or rigid materials that are pictured in 2-D works. Touchable sculptures line the far edge of a timeline of art history that visitors can walk along, reading information about art, culture, technology and politics along the floor, while viewing major works from the period and listening to music playing above. Truly, I can’t adequately express how wonderful this space is, except to say that it rivals the type of interactive experiences that large museums such as the Smithsonian make possible, and it shows in no uncertain terms that the museum is dedicated to learning and discovery in a way that firmly adheres to the American Association of Museum standards for education and interpretation. Of particular note, the use of technology and the diversity of content and programs targeted to different age groups underscore that “the museum uses techniques, technologies, and methods appropriate to its educational goals, content, audiences, and resources” (p. 1).

Along these lines, it is also evident that the museum hopes to connect viewing with learning inside and outside the space and to encourage further study. In the Meissen gallery, for instance, they have embraced technology and added a QR code-driven audio tour, which can be accessed in whole or part. This is echoed with the ability to check out an iPod with this same tour, and by the ability to go online after a visit and listen to the contents again through a podcast. I was excited to see the QR codes, because I felt that embracing this technology was a bold step that not too many similarly sized museums I’ve visited have tried; ultimately it was frustrating, however, because my poor cell phone reception equated to a 15-minute download time. Even so, the concept is there, and linking to alternatives for access that account for different audience preferences is something the Cummer is doing well. The museum also has touch screens with access to interactive timelines in several of the galleries, which are again resources that can be accessed online after the visit.

Beyond these designated learning spaces, however, there are quieter examples of encouragement. Carr (2006) suggests that cultural institutions are places where people learn through reflection and questioning, and where visitor experiences with the collection are varied. He questions how museums can help visitors capture fleeting moments of clarity or emotion, when “every work in a collection can hold an evocative moment for someone: [when] something there is intangibly present and moving, just for them” (p. 45). I think we all experience this at times, and then move forward, often without allowing the experience to shape our knowledge in any meaningful way. The Cummer, however, performed the simple act of encouraging people to reflect on these moments simply by sharing user thoughts (anonymous or attributed to individuals) throughout the gallery spaces in the form of quotations mounted near particular artworks. This was a gesture I really loved because it served as a graceful reminder that regardless of age or education, artworks can be stirring and personal reactions and reflections are important. The comments themselves ranged from profound and personal to rather trite, but each was pulled simply by looking at comment cards and listening to the public—this also had the added benefit of showing visitors that the museum does engage with its community on a meaningful level.

For myself, the collections were like most in a museum of this size—around 5,000 pieces from various points in history—which is to say that a few works were extremely thought-provoking, many were good examples from art historical periods, and I figured that I could really interest myself in most of the others if I were to read more about the background. I really do find that almost anything can become interesting given access to historical context or unexpected contemporary relationships. Perhaps because of this, what I found most engaging as an entire collection area was the original work that founded the museum. I mentioned previously that the museum pays close attention to preserving the original gardens and educating the public about the founder, Ninah Cummer, and her family. This includes a gallery space called the Tudor Room that is a restoration of a room in the original Cummer house, including artwork, which shows how the whims of the Cummers’ decorating tastes form the underpinnings of the collection. An adjacent gallery showcases historic photos of the family, grounds, and gardens, which spur almost an artificial sense of déjà vu when you look at the current Tudor Room and garden spaces, and was a sensation that I rather enjoyed.

What these spaces also did for my understanding of the founding collection of 60 works was encourage what Carr (2006) references when he encourages talking, questioning, and thinking about the human hand and mind in the creation of objects, especially as a gateway to considering the “meaning and power” of the works (p. 46, 52). The Cummer Museum also has a formal gallery devoted to showcasing a selection of works from those that Ninah Cummer donated; this is the guiding curatorial consideration in the space and the result is an eclectic mixture of European and American works, with a tiny Rubens painting on one wall, a Winslow Homer and Childe Hassam on another, and a work by the Dutch artist Paulus Bor on another. This space was fascinating because on one hand it informed my practical understanding of how some of the major collection areas in the museum were outlined, and on another it gave me a strange sense of understanding the founder and the space as a whole in a slightly different way. Instead of being confused by the lack of thematic or period-specific organization in this display, I gained a better understanding of the human mind at work behind this museum, which includes a sense of her personal tastes. Coupled with the historic touches, the unchanged gardens, and the photographs, I have an understanding about the collections and this neighborhood—which I have never seen before—that relies in large part on a connection to the past and on another person’s experience. This was my personal journey through the space, and one, that if not cultivated, was at least shaped by the considerations of the institution and the questions and associations that their presentation, atmosphere, and didactic materials encouraged. It is also an experience that I imagine is shared by many visitors, and is one that (since I have been thinking about it off and on all week) I might consider transformative.

References:
American Association of Museums. (n.d.). Characteristics of Excellence for U.S. Museums. Retrieved from http://www.aam-us.org/aboutmuseums/standards/stbp.cfm

Carr, D. (2006). A place not a place: reflections and possibility in museums and libraries. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.

Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. (2011). About the Cummer: Museum history. Retrieved from http://www.cummer.org/about/history.cfm

Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Initials. (2011). Accessibility. Retrieved from http://www.cummer.org/accessibility/accessibility.cfm

Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Initials. (2011). Events. Retrieved from http://www.cummer.org/accessibility/accessibility.cfm

Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. (2011). Weaver Academy. Retrieved from http://timeline.cummer.org/timeline/weaver-academy

UNESCO. (2002). United Nations year for cultural heritage information kit. Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org

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