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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Cultural institution visits–a paper in a few parts


Location:

Location
The Cummer Museum is located, quite literally, on the banks of the St. Johns River in the historic Riverside neighborhood of Jacksonville; the Riverside Arts Market (held on Saturdays from April through December under the Fuller Warren Bridge) is just down the street. Rather fittingly, the Garden Club of Jacksonville, which was founded by the main namesake of the museum, Ninah Cummer, is located next door. Both of these neighbors nicely echo the character of the museum and of the broader community in which it is situated. The remainder of the neighborhood is composed of residential and commercial buildings that preserve an interesting mixture of architectural styles and history, due to a strong preservation organization that operates in the area (Riverside Avondale Preservation, Inc.).

The museum itself echoes the character of the type of preservation that is evident in the rest of the area, which is to say that while the history is retained, it doesn’t function as an outdated structure. Instead, the building was constructed on the site of Arthur and Ninah Cummer’s home, which was donated for demolition and subsequent building of a museum space capable of housing a collection of priceless works (Cummer Museum, 2011, Museum History). The building was completed in 1961 and while it replaced a historic home with a more modern building, much of the feel of the original home, grounds, and namesake is still evident. In fact, while the focus is on the art collection, the attention to the history of the institution and the preservation of the original gardens give it an atmosphere that is unlike many other museums. I’ll expound on this point in greater detail later, but part of the reason that this museum fits seamlessly into the surroundings is this very awareness of a balance between progress and heritage that is obviously significant to the rest of the community.


Partnerships:
As far as I can tell there are many partnerships between the Cummer and surrounding organizations, but none that explicitly involve area libraries of any type. Perusing the website and brochures available at the museum yielded no mentions of library partnership; however, a non-circulating library of 10,000 resources related to the collections and traveling exhibitions is available onsite, so there is a library presence in the space. When I spoke with an educator that was staffing the desk in the hands-on gallery space and inquired about museum partnerships the focus was definitely on collaborations with schools in the county and on the programs co-sponsored by VSA Arts. In the case of the former, the Duval County School District provides admission and bus costs for students at arts magnet schools to visit the site each year; this program is a viable opportunity for students to tour and make art at the museum, however the scope of the partnership has steadily decreased over the past few years due to budget issues. The Weaver Academy of Art at the Cummer was started in 2007 to fund visits for kids from underserved schools and is supported primarily by Jaguar owners Wayne and Delores Barr Weaver (Cummer Museum, 2011, Weaver Academy). That program involves teacher training, monthly museum staff visits to the participating schools for instruction and art making, followed by two or more school visits to the museum.

VSA Arts forms the other major educational partnership, with the Jacksonville VSA Arts chapter based out of the Cummer. This partnership equates to a museum that offers a tremendous amount of specialized programming for adults and children with disabilities. This includes touchable sculpture and garden collections; Women of Vision, a monthly program of study in art history and studio time for visually impaired adult women; educational resources and specialized tours for ESE students; teacher in-service and lesson plans for special needs classes; and a partnership with St. Vincent’s Healthcare that offers art therapy workshops to children with cancer (Cummer Museum, 2011, Accessibility). In addition to the official programs offered in partnership with VSA Arts, I think the Cummer benefits tremendously from their expertise. They have signs proclaiming that the galleries and gardens are all wheelchair accessible, but their attention to accessibility details is much greater than that. They have label text that adheres to guidelines for the visually impaired regarding contrast, size, and color and have large amounts of floor space and open layouts for easily maneuvering wheelchairs (or strollers). More significantly, however, I noticed that any objects in vitrines where placed low enough for easy viewing and that they have avoided laying flat objects in the cases or placing label text or object numbers on flat surfaces, which is common. Overall, it felt like the layouts were considerate without feeling overly fussy and that the spaces would be inviting to a variety of visitors.

The Cummer also seems to care deeply about engaging with the community, and the last partnership I will mention clearly demonstrates this. They are collaborating with the Riverside Avondale Preservation organization to create an exhibition, set to open in mid-June, about the historic community in which the museum resides. The Neighborhood as Art: Celebrating the Riverside Avondale Area exhibition is going to feature contemporary works in media such as painting, sculpture, and video created by local artists and placed near historic photos of the Riverside and Avondale neighborhoods. The preservation organization is providing the photos to act as a counterpoint to the contemporary interpretations and memory-laced accounts of the neighborhood (Cummer Museum, 2011, Events). This exhibition should fit nicely with the goals of the preservation organization, which are to preserve and enliven the neighborhood so it remains an active community; the Cummer seeks to do the same by preserving its own history as part of this community. Carr (2006) notes that “throughout the museum, apart from the identification of objects and their contexts, it may be useful to emphasize the interwoven continuities of things, the threads and ribbons that interlace artifacts with their human observers” (p. 115). This exhibition and partnership seeks to present thoughtful interpretations of the neighborhood and to capture something more than the collection of buildings that comprise the physical location— it should help to record the intangible aspects of a living, breathing, evolving community.

Accreditation:
The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is accredited by the American Association of Museums. Also, though not an indication of accreditation, the museum was added to the National Register of Historic Places in January, 2010, in recognition of the importance of the gardens.

Publications
The museum has a number of publications, ranging from a general monthly newsletter and a newsletter geared toward art education (Connections) to gallery guides and interactive family guides that accompany specific exhibitions, full-scale scholarly books, and podcasts and interactive web-based timelines. The selection of printed books is small, but extremely appealing. For starters, they have a postcard-sized book that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the museum (this year) by showcasing the 50 favorite images from the collection as voted upon by museum staff, docents, and the visiting public. This book is sleek, affordable, and showcases the breadth of the permanent collections as well as the care the museum places on listening to the opinions of their visitors. There is also a general museum handbook and several publications specifically about the gardens. The one I found most impressive, however, was a book written by Urich Pietsch, a German scholar and curator of Meissen porcelain, that showcases around 700 pieces from the Cummer collection. This book was published in 2011 and accompanies the new installation of the Cummer’s Meissen collection (although not an exhibition catalog), which is the most significant collection of these works in the United States. They have several of these books set out near extremely comfortable chairs in the gallery space, which I thought was actually quite conducive to reading large portions of the text. This book was a great contrast to the many museum highlights publications that focus on simple overviews of the works and definitely shows that the museum is interested in targeting serious scholars by assisting and supporting research and compilation of this book.

Adult Programs:
The Cummer Museum has a number of programs for adults to engage with the collections (ranging from traditional to innovative) and incorporates museum history, gardens, and art history into its offerings. They also seem to effectively combine opportunities for socializing with educational endeavors, which indicates that they understand the importance of making learning opportunities fun in order to attract the largest possible audience. For instance, on the third Wednesday and Thursday of each month they offer a program targeted toward seniors (although not limited to this demographic) that combines a gallery talk with a tea party. Having this social function allows visitors to relax and also encourages discussion about the collections and lecture. The museum also offers frequent themed and general tours, adult art making classes, formal lectures, and events such as concerts and plays that are intended to get people engaging with the space in unexpected ways. The partnership with VSA Arts also includes a number of programs targeted to adults with a range of disabilities, such as alternative tours intended for people with vision impairment that can also be combined with adaptive studio experiences that include specialized equipment to help people with mobility issues engage in creative expression.


Finding connections in words, images, and an imagined past

“In our world, it is knowledge and experience and communication that will best palliate and heal fear and emptiness.” – David Carr

I just finished reading David Carr’s A Place Not A Place, a poetic reflection on his experiences in museums and libraries over the course of his adult life. His accounts of his experiences and ideas about how such institutions can reach out to visitors and make their experiences educational and transformative are honest, raw, and sometimes frustrating and I feel a peculiar connection to his words. He grapples with how we can encourage connection and how easily we can disrupt this process, unknowingly and ignorantly pulling connection away from our viewers. And he talks about the fragility of our experiences and how they can mark us (scar, perhaps is a better word). Above all, however, he believes that as museum professionals and librarians we have an opportunity to provide access to life-altering content and to help our users make connections and find meaning. That, truly, can be powerful.

His text got me reflecting a little myself on recent experiences in museum settings. Certainly having worked in museum education I can understand his concerns for offering context, information, and connections in a way that draws people into the works. And I can also understand how easily we get in the way of quiet and profound reflection, of how easily a tour can excite or discourage, a discussion engage or alienate. I have seen docents dominate visitors and make them unsure of their own experiences, or to infuriate and embarrass them by putting them on the spot. I have also seen programs and tours delivered with such knowledge and enthusiasm that the viewers are drawn into the worlds created before them and leave in active discussions and undoubtedly in search of additional information and similar experiences. I have seen the same accomplished through sophisticated displays and interpretations. The latter, in fact, I experienced at the Cummer Museum of Art just recently.

What I found riveting about this museum was the connections to the past. David Carr references the importance of directing attention to the hand of the creator, which we sometimes lose amidst the controlled environment of a gallery space. The Cummer, in its attention to the history of the space, to the original eclectic collection of the founder, succeeded in spotlighting the mind at work behind the current collection areas. It created a connection to the vision of a woman that simply loved art and felt it deserved a prominent place in our society. A gallery space devoted to her donations, where a small Rubens was displayed alongside a Winslow Homer and a Childe Hassam, coupled with the historic gardens outside and the historic touches and photographs present in a restored version of a room in her home helped me to create a connection to the past based largely on another person’s experience–and it was absolutely riveting.