Museum Moments (a new series)

Today marks the first installment of a new series inspired by this year’s VAM (Virginia Association of Museums) conference. Elizabeth Merritt, Founding Director of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums, gave an excellent talk on day two. She began by recounting her first “museum experience” and explained how those formative museum visits determined the course of her life from an early age.  (Forgive me, I cannot possibly remember the specifics of her “moment” [we drank many beers that night], but I do remember someone in the room shouting “the taxidermied bison at the Natural History museum changed my life!” and I was reminded again how museum people are… special). Ms. Merritt urged us all to think back on our first “museum moments” — those times in our childhoods when a museum made an indelible impact on our tender psyches — and reflect on how that experience led us inexorably toward museum work.

The topic at dinner that night amongst Hermitage staff was our own museum moments. I loved hearing everyone’s stories and I figured you all would enjoy reading them. Lo, an idea was born.

My own museum moment will have to wait until another day because this post is dedicated to our fearless leader, Melanie Mathewes. I don’t talk a lot about Melanie on the blog because whenever she says or does something funny she shouts “this can’t go on the blog!” But trust me: she is the glue holding this operation together. She is always here — in her trademark high heeled shoes — offering advice and making sure I don’t do anything dimwitted. Thank you, Melanie.  I asked her to write a bit about her first museum experiences for the blog, and not only did she graciously comply, she provided a photo. Enjoy:

Melanie Leigh, 1972

Lauren challenged those of us who attended the VAM conference to record our first experiences with art and share via the blog.  Since I am older than most of the staff, I had to think harder than the rest.

Kindergarten was a big year for me.  That year I had my most memorable art experience and made my career decision all under the guidance of Miss Moorefield.

The art part was particularly traumatic.  I had no idea it was against the rules to color upside-down – apparently in 1972 it was a tragic blunder for anyone to turn the paper in any direction that wasn’t straight up. Early on I thought it best to steer away from a career in art.

That same year the class took fieldtrips.  We went to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Jamestown, and the Smithsonian – remember this was the 70’s, we didn’t have SOLs, public schools took lots of field trips, and the schools actually paid for the fieldtrips.  Museums were big, really big when I was 5.  They were cool (and I mean temperature wise as my house didn’t have air conditioning), they had lots of pretty stuff, and they had to be popular because whenever I was in one there were hoards of other people all dashing about.  The guides, who I thought ran the museums since I never met anyone else on a fieldtrip, always dressed sharp and sounded smart. I was impressed by museums in general. So in my five year old mind, I thought a museum would be a great place to work.

Career decided.

Then career day came and twenty-five snaggletooth five and six year olds were seated cross legged in a circle all staring at our teacher and waiting for instruction.  Miss Moorefield asked, “What would you like to be when you grow up?” The boys were quick with dynamic and exciting choices – astronauts, doctors, firefighters, and cowboys. The girls had decidedly different directions – mommy, teacher, secretary, and nurse.  My response messed everything up, so much so that the teacher had to ask me twice,  “Melanie, what did you say you want to do?” At the time I thought she was just hard of hearing, so I said again “I want to work in a museum and be an archeologist.” From the expression on her face, it was apparent that I had turned the paper upside-down all over again.

Zombies Ahead. Run.

At 11:31 AM this morning I finished the labels for the new painting gallery. I feel like I just ran a marathon. While wearing a woolen overcoat. In mid-August. In Virginia. The last time I felt this relieved was that time in Scotland when I finished my dissertation:

In other words, I am pumped. The great news? MY BRAIN IS FREE. My capacity for complex thought processes has tripled in the last hour. For instance: I can start thinking ahead to lunchtime instead of grabbing handfuls of M&Ms as needed from the kitchen. The various and sundry tasks I’ve been neglecting over the past few weeks can get some much-needed love (first task: sweep up the glitter that has found its way into every nook and cranny of this house. Where did it come from? And why wasn’t I invited?). I also have the time to share my thoughts on current events. Namely: zombie tag.

What in the world does the Curator at the Hermitage have to say about a game of Zombie-themed tag? A lot, actually. You see, the Hermitage is one of the three charitable organizations named as a beneficiary of the event. (Thanks again, Whitney!)

In case you missed the hailstorm of publicity surrounding Whitney Metzger‘s runaway success, let me catch you up to speed: last Friday, the Ghent area of Norfolk hosted 1700 participants in a gigantic game of zombie tag lovingly dubbed Survive Norfolk. The object of the game was to run a 1.5 mile course through the city, checking in at various checkpoints, all without getting tagged by a zombie (thus becoming a zombie yourself). Sounds fun, right?

I saw Whitney a week ago. We were both eating brunch at the Donut Dinette (you cannot go wrong with a cheeseburger at 11 AM on a Saturday), and she was headed out to hang fliers advertising Survive Norfolk. It was a low-key Saturday, and she had a small handful of fliers. “I just made a facebook event page,” she said, “you should check it out when you get home.” My husband and I nodded enthusiastically between mouthfuls of cheeseburger. Whitney said goodbye and walked over to Azar’s to see if they had a community notice board.

Well, the next day, the facebook guest list for Survive Norfolk had quadrupled. Word spread like wildfire through Old Dominion University and surrounding areas. Suddenly the participants numbered in the hundreds, and then the thousands. In other words, zombie tag was starting to get real. The next few days was a haze. Permits were applied for, money was donated by the bucketful, and a community rallied around Survive Norfolk. The young people of this town were mobilized and not even Paul Fraim could stand in the way.

Friday night could have been a disaster. It wasn’t. The winners ran the course in six minutes (SIX MINUTES — can you imagine? I repeat: 1.5 miles in SIX MINUTES. It takes me six minutes to walk to my car in the morning). Local businesses embraced the influx of customers, throngs of be-zombied people dashed through safely closed streets, and the spectators drank many beers.

The event garnered considerable media coverage, but it was an article in yesterday’s Daily Break by Mike Gruss that managed to actually say something besides “Have you heard about this new thing called Facebook? It really is changing things for the kids” (I’m looking at you, USA Today). Cheers to you, Gruss, for pointing out the obvious implications of Whitney’s game-turned-community street festival:

The movers and shakers, the patrons and players, the casual supporters and the season ticket holders in Norfolk’s arts community should be afraid. They should look at what happened Friday night in Ghent and be very, very afraid…

… But the leadership in Norfolk’s arts community need not be afraid of zombies. They need to be afraid of Metzger and what activities like “Survive Norfolk” mean for their future.

After more than five years, the city still can’t consistently put people into the seats of the gorgeous Attucks Theatre. Musical acts love it, but audiences have been hesitant to flock there. It hasn’t worked. At least not yet…

… The zombies are a warning sign. Careful cultural observers can see that if the groups with the most political capital, the most financial capital and the best connections can’t plan the best events, the ones that become the premier, can’t-miss happenings of the weekend, someone else will.

Gruss ends the article with a call to action for cities and nonprofits: accept the changing social dynamic. Adapt or perish. To that I say, Gruss! We are! We are about to fall over dead from working so hard to get the word out! We have done more at the Hermitage in the last year than I ever thought humanly possible. Megan Frost started Sunsets on the River last fall and I think we had 11 people at our first concert. Now we regularly clock in 400+ attendees. We showed movies on the lawn this summer. This past Sunday we had 2,800 people at All Hallows Eve. We have a newly formed Young Associates Board who are planning a big ol’ riverside  oyster roast next month.  I am working as fast as I can to get our collection online and into our visitor’s homes (digitally, of course!). We’ve got a brand new painting gallery opening next week and it is chock-full of important works of art. In other words: we’re trying, Gruss. We’re trying really hard.

I moved to Norfolk the same time I started my job here — about a year and a half ago. My friends in far-flung metropolises couldn’t fathom my reasoning, but to me Norfolk is the best kind of place to be young, creative, and struggling to find your place in this world. When you can’t get what you want, Norfolk gives you the space to make it — just like Whitney showed us.  We are carrying that spirit forward as best we can at the Hermitage. All we need is you to join us.

—–

Update: an open letter of thanks to the community from Whitney, with her take on Survive Norfolk

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The Water Organ

One of the pictures featured in the new painting gallery is a lovely (and recently conserved!) work by George Wharton Edwards.

George Wharton Edwards (American 1859-1950)
The Water Organ at Ville D’Este
1925
Oil on canvas

George Wharton Edwards was an American Impressionist painter who corresponded regularly with Mrs. Sloane from 1935 until his death in 1950. His work was enormously popular amongst the cultural elite of the 1920s and 30s, and he received numerous honors and awards throughout his lifetime, including an appointment in 1925 to the Légion d’Honneur of France for “Eminent Services in Art.” His work can be found in many major holdings, including the Fine Arts Museum of San Fransisco, Musée D’Orsay, and the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia. He was an active member of the famous Cos Cob Art Colony; a group of artists working in Greenwich, Connecticut between 1890 and 1920.

We have five works by Edwards in the Sloane Collection.  Mrs. Sloane’s letters to Edwards indicate they were planning a one-man show of his work at the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences (now the Chrysler Museum) in the early 1930s. Edwards shipped 30 works on canvas to the Hermitage, and though no inventory of those works remain in the archives I am fairly certain that the remaining five came from that shipment. Three of his most beautiful Italian scenes are hanging in the painting gallery, including The Water Organ at Ville D’Este, pictured above.

The Villa d’Este, now a UNESCO world heritage site, was commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito Il d’Este in the mid 16th century. The landscape surrounding the Villa is replete with decorative fountains and formal gardens, including sculptural work loosely attributed to Bernini, but the water organ is easily the strangest garden feature. Read about the history of water organs here if you are so inclined.

No matter how much I read I still couldn’t grasp the mechanics of the organ. I mean, hydraulics? What? More than anything I wanted to HEAR the organ. Well, in case you forgot, the internet is a magical place. A simple youtube search turned up a handful of videos of the organ in action.

Get your organ on:

… and come see the painting under new light in November!

Don’t worry, I wasn’t eaten by bears.

I must have stumbled into a wormhole in the Hermitage time/space continuum because WHOA is time moving quickly. Let’s hop in the way-back machine and catch everyone up:

Things That Are Happening, A List

1.The name of the game is Painting Gallery. The Florence K. Sloane Painting Gallery, to be precise. We have lights! Paintings are hung! Do you have any idea what a difference proper lighting makes in the display and interpretation of beautiful works of art? It is quite literally the difference between night and day. My hours spent putting together the new gallery have been some of the best I’ve spent at the Hermitage thus far — I simply can’t believe how beautiful the paintings look. Sublime, y’all. This process has been such an enormous labor of love for me and everyone else involved. I do hope you will come have a look in November. I have plenty more to say about the painting gallery, but that will wait until another day.

2. My absence from the blog can be explained in one word: EVENTS. Do you have any idea how many events we are running? I mean, seriously, do you know? Because I have a callous from opening beer bottles. Between Sunsets on the River, Cesar Romero’s opening, movies on the lawn, a myriad of weddings, daytime meetings and lectures, the heirloom plant sale, and Appraisal Days, I feel like we’ve done little else besides haul chairs and break down tables.

Don’t think I’m complaining; our efforts are for good. The Hermitage is THE place to see and be seen in Norfolk (or so I’m told — I’m always here). We’ve got record numbers signing up for museum memberships (THANK YOU, NEW MEMBERS!) and Megan is working her fingers to the bone trying to get membership packets in the mail. If you are reading this and you haven’t yet joined as a museum member then please — PLEASE — consider joining. I’m as shameless as they come. If you’re a friend of mine in a faraway place, you can join online by clicking here. Yes, that means you.

3. Our new docent training program is gathering momentum with Colin at the helm. Trainees meet every other Tuesday night in the Central Hall and discuss all kinds of Hermitage-related topics. If you have a hole in your heart that only being a docent can fill then call Colin or me to join up. We would be thrilled to teach you all we know about the 40,000 items in our care.

4. Did you know that BOTH upstairs galleries are getting a major face-lift? I talk about the painting gallery quite a bit, but we are also turning over the West Gallery to correspond with the painting gallery. Our large collection of bronze sculpture by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth is getting a new, brightly-lit home. I am ably assisted in this endeavor by our docent extraordinaire, Donna.

5. Upcoming events are thick on the ground, so get out your date books and start penciling us in!

October 15
Friday Night Films
Ghostbusters

October 21
Tidewater Art Alliance Miniature Exhibition
Opening Reception: October 21, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m.
Exhibition: October 22 – December 1

October 24
All Hallows Eve
Fall Celebration for All Ages
1:00 – 7:00 p.m.

A photo-heavy post is up next. I’M BACK, BLOG-LAND!

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