Monday, 11 June 2018

FINDING MAGIC, LIFTING ROCKS, AND A MUSEUM CITY

INTERNSHIP CHECK-IN

BY: KATHLEEN LEW

Readers, you know the drill! Read the following interviews to learn about what Master of Museum Studies students are doing during their internships* 

This post features:

Alexis Benjamin: GLBT Historical Society, San Francisco, CA

Laetitia Dandavino-Tardif:
Estate of Arnaud Maggs, Toronto, ON

Beth Lymer: Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, ON

Tell us a bit about yourself and your museum-related interests.

Alexis: I am a queer trans woman originally from the small city of Boise, Idaho in the United States. I started working in museums during a really dark time in my life, after an unsuccessful suicide attempt after I realized I was trans. Working in museums was a large part of figuring out how to live again. My first supervisor and mentor was a lesbian who sued with her wife for the right to marry. My primary interest is telling the stories of people who were denied a voice by conventional history. These stories include the trans, gender non-conforming, and queer rioters at Compton’s Cafeteria, or the thirty four Chinese miners killed in the Hells Canyon Massacre. This also includes the story of my grandmother, who along with her family was interned at the Minidoka War Relocation Center along with 120 000 other Americans simply for having Japanese heritage.

Laetitia: Following my Bachelor of Art History and Studio Arts at Concordia University (Montreal, QC), I decided to move to Toronto to pursue a Master of Museum Studies. My objective is to work as a curator in an art gallery or museum while remaining involved with local art communities. When I visit museums, I am interested in how exhibitions are created to foster conversations on various topics. More specifically, I am captivated by how artworks, when brought together, create new meanings and engage in dialogues with each other and the viewers. Thus, what I aim to do as a curator is develop exhibitions that talk about current societal issues through the gathering of artworks.

Beth: My name is Beth Lymer and I just finished my first year of the Master of Museum Studies program. I am just over a month into my summer internship in the Earth Sciences collection at the Royal Ontario Museum. I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology, and a Master of Science degree in Earth and Space Science. After completing some of my research on meteorites during my last degree at the ROM, I became interested in natural science and the role museums play in science education, research and collection. 

Beth with the Earth Sciences Collection at the ROM. Photo courtesy of Beth Lymer. 
What is a typical day at your institution? What are your responsibilities?

Alexis: I don’t really have a typical day. I work in three different departments throughout the week, and once we get into the swing of prepping and installing new exhibits, I will be working for four. Initially, the collection was purely an archive without a museum attached. Our database is filemaker pro, which is an archival database and doesn't support artifacts well. When working with the registrar, I am inventorying our most critical collections, like the materials and artifacts donated by Harvey Milk and Scott Smith’s estate. I also work for our educational and programming department which was established a month before I started. We are creating our first lesson plans and primary and secondary school materials. I am doing work on an Angela Davis “OUTspoken” exhibit which has taken me to the Alameda County Courthouse where Huey P. Newton’s conviction was thrown out, to microform copies of the People vs. Angela Y. Davis trial transcript in the special collection at UC Berkeley. With the museum director, I do everything from volunteer wrangling to brainstorming new exhibits. I guess my typical day is coming in and asking what I am doing, and then doing something totally new.

Laetitia: My main task at the internship is to condition report and catalogue the works by Canadian photographer Arnaud Maggs and to optimize the Estate of Arnaud Maggs’ database. I work together with another intern to consolidate the collection. We gather all the necessary information about the photographs, look at their condition and input this information in the database. Our supervisor gives us liberty to organize our daily schedule, while providing us guidelines and suggesting priorities we should focus on. Sometimes, special projects come up, such as the sale of an artwork or the visit of an art collector, and we help our supervisor with this preparation.

Beth: There is no such thing as a typical day in the museum field – we are constantly juggling 100 different projects at once which is very exciting. However, my overarching project for the summer is to create a classification scheme for a couple thousand rocks that do not fit in our current schema, and rehouse them in our petrology collection. This project involves creating new hierarchies in the TMS database, the planning and moving of specimens, cataloguing, and lifting a lot of rocks! I have also been working on a display with the entomology department for the Scarborough Gem and Mineral show in September, where we are displaying minerals and butterflies together! I am responsible for creating this display from start to finish, from choosing mineral specimens, to mock-ups, to loan agreement paperwork.   

What is something you have learned so far at your internship?


Alexis: I have learned that I have to wear many hats. When I started, I quickly realized with the exception of Executive Director, Communications Director, Financial Director, and Administrative Manager, I would work for every other department. I work in programming, museum operations, archives and special collections, and museum collections. It is a great overview of all the different things needed to make a museum and archives work.

Laetitia: Through my internship, I realize the importance of a centralized database, in this case the Estate of Arnaud Maggs, and how this can be applied to a larger institution. The database enables one to record sales and loans of artworks and collects information on Maggs’ prints such as: description, condition and museum collections, etc. I am now able to distinguish between a study print versus a final print and recognize the nuances between the various types of works, such as details versus contact sheets. I have also learned the best practices of handling prints with care, precaution, and how to preserve them. Although I have experience with photography, I am learning a lot about the various photographic techniques, methods and mediums. This provides me with a more knowledgeable basis for a future profession in the art field. Finally, I am discovering the career, artistic vision and aesthetic of one artist, Arnaud Maggs, as I am immersed in his world and studio. I am exposed to Maggs’ process and the evolution of his work throughout his forty years career.

Beth: I have learned that classification is hard – and that a classification scheme will never work perfectly, nor please everyone. I have also learned that the most successful classification scheme is one that works best for the people who are housing and searching for objects everyday – the collections staff, not necessarily the user of the collection (i.e. researcher). This sounds like a pretty obvious statement, but when you are forced to make decisions that will affect the collection for decades, it becomes very daunting.

 
Laetitia at the Estate of Arnaud Maggs. Photo courtesy of Laetitia Dandavino-Tardif
What are you excited about accomplishing throughout your internship?

Alexis: I already inventoried the Harvey Milk and Scott Smith collection, which was both amazing and sobering. Artifacts have a magic to them, and sometimes that magic is a black thing. Especially when you open a box and find in it a returned property slip from the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Office, and an empty suit bag (the suit in which Supervisor Milk was shot), and then another bag holding a pair of silk boxers covered in dark stains from blood spilled nearly forty years ago. I am most excited about the final project they have for me. Three cases to fill with any exhibit I choose from our permanent collection of materials. It will be one of the hardest things to do, to limit what I put in there. But I hope to tell the stories of some trans people who have been forgotten by history.

Laetitia: The combination of different tasks that involve unexpected, but welcome challenges keeps me excited throughout the internship. Every box of prints I open is different and filled with treasures. For example, we discovered small photographs of Leonard Cohen. Maggs, mostly working with portraiture, requires us to identify photographed subjects and research their names. It has been stimulating to discover and learn about the significant cultural figures, such as artists, curators or musicians, that posed for Maggs. I enjoy looking at these portraits, as they capture the essence of various time periods, starting in the 70s to the present, in Toronto and in Europe. Moreover, there is also creativity involved in the internship as we develop new types of categorization of the works and compiling sets of prints, keeping in mind Maggs’ methodology. Understanding how the work I am doing now is meaningful and has an impact on the future of the estate, motivates me.

Beth: I am very excited to see finished products in both of my main projects – the petrology collection and the mineral display. It will be satisfying to see hard work displayed in the collection room, where thousands of specimens will have new homes and are organized beautifully, and in a more visual display with the Scarborough Gem and Mineral show project. 

Dyke March Oral History Project Reception, Shirt is a replica of the May 21st 1979 Defense Fund, calling for the SF queer community to make no apologies for the White Night Riot. Silk screens held by the GLBT Historical Society Collection. Photo courtesy of Alexis Benjamin. 
If you could create any museum (no matter how ridiculous) what kind of museum would it be?

Alexis: The 2020 GLBT Historical Society roadmap comes pretty close, which wants to expand the museum from a single gallery in what used to be a Laundromat in the Castro, to North America’s first museum dedicated to LGBTQAI+ culture and history. But mine would be more radical. It would display the works of groups like the Degenderettes, of which Mask Magazine said, “The Degenderettes make rad embroidered patches and queer weapons, offering a supportive channel for aggressive visibility in a society where visible queerness is often seen as a threat.” It would be a museum that would get picketed daily by people who don’t like things that are different. It would be revolutionary, and visibility queer. But unlike the GLBT Historical Society it would put women trans people, people of color, and sex worker’s voice at the center of the museum. It would be a place where the margins were the center.

Laetitia: I would create a museum city. I visualize a city that is a museum. A museum without walls. This concept already exists and some features of it can already be seen in various cities, but I would like to push this idea even further! As someone enters the city gates, it enters the museum. As you walk through the city, there are history, science or art exhibitions in the streets, and these ones change throughout the year. Maybe one neighborhood is dedicated to science exhibitions, while the other to art? As passerby’s walk in the streets, they get to enjoy beautiful exhibitions and learn.

Beth: A lot of people have answered that they would open a museum about space, but I feel that has to be my answer as well - and I would be happy to work as a team with them to accomplish that. I think everyone is at least a little fascinated with space because it is still so unknown, and so vast! I would love to open a museum about space and deep time, and create an environment where people have an existential experience.

*These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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