Friday, 7 March 2014

OBJECT OF THE WEEK: BUTTER SCULPTURES

BY KATHERINE HANNEMANN

Who’s dreaming of summer? As we reach the end of this long winter, I know I am. While fighting through a particularly bitter wind tunnel last week, I found myself conjuring images of summer in order to make the walk home just a bit more bearable.

Among the many warm thoughts of summer, I recalled one of my favourite summer experiences (from both my childhood and as an adult): the Minnesota State Fair. An annual event during the last 12 days of summer, the “Great Minnesota Get-Together” is a 150-year old Midwestern tradition that continues in full force today, bringing thousands of Minnesotans out from all corners of the state (and beyond!). To experience the Minnesota State Fair is to engage all of the senses: as I imagined walking into the fair, along with it I could almost smell a sweet blend of deep-fried mini donuts, cigarette smoke, barn animals, baking cookies, and sweat from the August humidity. (Trust me, it’s a good smell.) Add in the sounds of carnival rides, the heat of the sun on your skin, and a little bit of nausea from all the cheese curds, and there is your multi-sensory experience. This carried me all the way from the Robarts library to the College streetcar.

 
The Minnesota State Fair. Source: Good Housekeeping

One very interesting tradition that has arisen at the fair is the annual butter carving, in which the newly-crowned Princess Kay of the Milky Way (think Miss America for the dairy industry) sits in a refrigerated booth to have her head carved out of a giant block of butter. The butter sculpture is this week’s featured object, not only because it is the perfect representation of a late Midwestern summer, but also because it inspired me to consider the nature of objects as transitory and finite -- objects in museums in no way exempt from this criteria.

 
Butter carving at the Fair. Source: Food Republic

Funny enough, a butter sculpture from the fair actually has become a museum object. One of the dairy-based likenesses of Princess Kay of the Milky Way made an appearance in the Minnesota History Center’s crowd-curated exhibition “MN150: The People, Places, and Things that Shape Our State” as a representation of -- what else -- the Minnesota State Fair. The sculpture was kept in a refrigerated display case for the duration of the exhibition. An object that demands such care in its preservation, maintenance, and display calls attention to its own finite nature. A butter sculpture is a very fickle artifact (just keep it in a hot room for a few hours and it becomes a puddle of golden liquid), but in a way, all museum objects are like butter sculptures. Though some objects have lasted thousands of years, no object will last infinitely, and some change inevitably will occur when an object is handled, put on display, viewed, stored -- in short, when an object exists.

Call for MN150 Entries. Source: Museum 2.0

 
The MN150 Exhibition. Source: Minnesota History Center

At the same time (and as many of us have been discussing in Collections Management), change to an object does not necessarily mean damage. Some objects -- like butter -- are not meant to last forever. Butter sculptures are just one example in which the object can regain its original function and purpose over its role as an object on display. To illustrate what I mean here, take what the 2010 Princess Kay, Katie Miron, said about her sculpture in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. According to Miron, “Farmers don’t waste anything” -- after her year-long reign as Princess Kay, she planned to “cut up the butter head and cook and bake with it.” At the end of their lives, could all museum artifacts be so tasty?

6 comments:

  1. Katherine, I might need to cite you in my future classes - "all objects are like butter sculptures"! I love this! You are so right to mention that the life of the objects is tied to their materiality and to the ways in which we preserve these objects (even those made out of butter). The fact that this sculpture will be hopefully made into pie crusts and other delicious things made out of butter (Yay Julia!) is fascinating and a great statement to the repurposing of objects, even those included in museums.

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    1. By all means, I'd love to see this metaphor take shape outside of Musings. And, like Julia, we should never be afraid to add more butter -- in culinary OR academic settings!

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  2. I'm so glad you decided to write about this!! It's such a niche, but interesting form of art. I think it gives all of us, especially those who are particularly collections minded, a reminder that some things simply cannot - or should not - last forever. As museums studies students (and professionals even..) this can be a hard pill to swallow. Great article!

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  3. I'm with Irina, Katherine, I loved your butter-object analogy! It's perfect! This reminds me of a reading from curatorial practice for one week, discussing our predominately visual way of experiences objects in museums and whether or not this was really the best way to do justice to these objects--most of which were made with the intention of being functional. For example, could one who had never had/experienced butter before even hope to grasp its nature, its taste, its texture, etc. by just looking at it? Definitely not. Also, with butter, even if one were to taste/touch/feel/experience it by itself, would that be enough? For me personally, butter doesn’t do much for me by itself, but the way it changes a culinary dish is something I couldn’t live without! Perhaps, as you say, we need to think of objects this way? Yes we can make interpretations just by looking at objects (even other food objects), and perhaps even by handling them a bit if we are given the opportunity. But what about using them for what they’re intended for? I really don’t think just holding, say, a violin in my hands would give me the same satisfaction as hearing it played as intended. I imagine this is a question (which Alex also discussed in her post about object conservation) that curators and conservators have been and will be struggling with throughout their careers – how do we present objects and present the knowledge they embody? How can visitors experience this to the fullest possible extent? Is the perfect preservation of an object worth the object losing its ability to function/people’s ability to see an object “in action”? After all, an object’s function contributes to its life, its history, and its future. Through the use of objects, we get stories about those objects. How can we keep these stories alive and ongoing in the museum?

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  4. https://twitter.com/rr0710/status/442709824556396544/photo/1
    i thought this was fitting ;)

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  5. Butter carving is really amazing. Thanks for sharing..
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