Friday, June 20, 2014

Museum Notes Rewind: Mud

In time for Mud Day, June 29, and 
for those who have been swamped by the recent rains in the Midwest, 
a reminder of the mud-luscious world we live in.

I have long loved mud. It is a messy and joyous medium full of great possibilities. As a child I molded “fruit” from the mud excavated from around the foundation of our newly built house. I built nests out of mud and dried grass and sat in the woods to watch which mud-grass nest design birds would choose. Hearing e.e. cummings’ phrase, “…when the world is the mud-luscious…” for the first time in college, the ooze and joy of mud play and the deep, dark pungent mud smell from childhood engulfed me. 

The scooping and sculpting, digging and dunking, concocting and cooking, mixing, making, and sitting in mud has long been part of childhood. Just as I remember sculpting with mud, a friend recalls a spring mud ritual in New Hampshire. When the snow was almost melted and the dirt-covered playground softened, eager boys hurried outside and scooped out snow to play marbles in the mud. Christine Maestri wrote in the Star Tribune some years back about her year old niece choosing mud to explore over an entire whole farm. Passing the barns, animals, garden, toys, grass, the toddler walked directly into the mud puddle and sat down where she stirred and squished the mud in her fingers and played with it for nearly half an hour. 
Childhood without mud play is sanitized in too many respects. This is more than adult nostalgia, a romanticized vision of childhood, and my personal fondness for mud. Given mud’s great learning value as fascinating content and inspiration for varied experiences, mud play has a limited presence in most children’s lives. Clay and sand are great, but mud is better. It is local, plentiful, versatile, and somewhat forbidden.

And Then There Was Mud
Mud is a world-making medium. The world was covered with primordial ooze, mud, at its very origins. Mud in its many forms, hot and eruptive has contoured the world; cool, slimy or thick, it has been a habitat for critters.

Just as mud was at the beginning of the world, it is also a universal medium for children to explore, discover, and use to shape their world. It is elemental, putting children in touch with the earth. The pressures of a small hand or the push and poke of even a tiny finger can sculpt mud and shape a world. Mud is not only local, it is also intensely seasonal.

Anything a-la-mud
Mud lends itself to cooking, painting, sculpting, building, and full body slathering. Children can create mudloaf, mud pies, mud lattes, and anything-a-la-mud in muffin tins, pie pans, ice cube trays, cake molds or cookie sheets. Do not forget the scrapers, pancake turners and spatulas; the stirrers, spoons, sticks, and brushes for mixing, mushing, spreading and stirring. In short, set out the whole kitchen. And the birthday candles. Leaves, seeds, and sticks make any mud creation better. Equip a mud patch with hand shovels and trowels for digging; buckets and tubs for filling; hoses, watering cans, and cups for adding water and making sure the mud is “just so.”

Mud play is inevitably child-directed. Few adults want to get in there and take over a mud activity. We do not need to teach children to investigate mud or how to do so. Investigations with mud start in many ways. Not surprisingly, children’ investigations of mud begin with touch, a finger, a toe, a hand, a foot, whatever the moment (and supervising adult) will allow. Deeper immersion will follow.

When I have watched children play with or in mud, they are either extremely intent and serious or are playful and exuberant. If intent, a child is alone in thought, observing closely and with great concentration as if measuring with her mind how much she must press this mud patty before the mud fills in. Or a child might watch how the mud drips form at the lip of the cup. A child might concentrate on a muddy finger and drag it across a stone, a bare arm, or a piece of paper and notice how mud paints. 

If joyous and spirited, children crow, cajole, and compete with one another about their mud related accomplishments. They might be stringing together mud-inspired rhymes in a sing-songy voice, serving mud lattes to imaginary friends, or applying face paint to scare others. Their imaginations transform mud to oobleck, to lava, to chocolate. Children join forces to sculpt mud worlds with castle outposts, great walls, towers and moats.

This is just the kind of lively participation in the world–physical, natural, social, sculptural, aesthetic–we so want children to enjoy. We seldom, if ever, see the same excited questions, deep absorption, extended discovery, and elaborate play narratives emerge from an exhibit on sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks with fixed specimens, labels and photos.

Learning from Mud

Attractive to all ages, the mud table at Discovery Hollow
Considering mud is so prevalent and versatile, so joyously accessible, there are surprisingly few opportunities for children to explore mud in museums, classroom, and camps. Occasionally a children’s museum or nature center will boldly embrace mud. Tamarack Nature Center added an enormous mud table in Discovery Hollow. Yet, one museum asked me to take “mud pies” out of the final draft of the exhibit master plan. Visions of muddy-fingered children disturbed board members.

Mud is quintessentially interdisciplinary. Is mud science, solids suspended in liquid? Is it art, a plastic medium with expressive qualities? Is it humanities, a universal building material providing shelter the world around? Yes. No. Mud is mud. 
While exploring mud is often unstructured and open-ended, it is also an entry point for children to explore and learn about big and sometimes complex ideas and often with a degree of authenticity that is valued.
Making bricks at the Santa Fe Children's Museum

Children are able to make adobe bricks at the Santa Fe Children's Museum. Outside, under the trees, children mix the soil (typically a sandy clay loam) and water, find the right proportion to get a stiff mix; fill and compact the wooden forms; and then remove the brick from the form and let the bricks dry in the sun. In the play and work of brick making are centuries of building knowledge, a feel for the native soil, the heft of wet and dry bricks. This can be repeated in other locales with wattle and daub methods using an underlying structure with twigs and sticks, mixing cut grass or straw into the mud, and ‘plastering’ it onto the structure beneath.
The clay house at Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

As part of the summer 2012 exhibit, Dirt-O-rama: Intriguing Tales of the Underground at Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, children worked with artists to create a clay house in front of the Arboretum Learning Center. Starting with an underlying straw bale structure, a coat of clay from the local brickworks was plastered over the spiral structure. Nearby, the Mud Kitchen was open for play on weekends.
Backyard bubbling mud at Pittsburgh Children's Museum

In addition to the indoor clay studio and the outdoor sandbox at Pittsburgh Children’s Museum are vats of beautiful, bubbling mud in the Backyard. Children can dip their hands and arms into the roiling ooze that suggests the Earth’s origins, feeling its temperature and consistency and sensing how it coats and clings to the skin. In Animated Earth by artist Steven Eisenhauer, children can add air to the mud vats. Turning the handles adds air pressure to change the surface, the size of the bubbles, and the music of the mud.

In an ode to the medium of clay, Denver Art Museum’s 2011 exhibit, Marvelous Mud: Clay Around the World explored clay’s range and versatility as a mark of human interaction with the earth. The show features a great sweep of ceramic arts through human history and around the world, with antiquities and contemporary arts from the museum’s collection. Artists, asked to create specific works for the museum, stretched the possibilities of mud and ideas about clay. In the Mud Studio, children and adults explored clay as an inviting and forgiving sculptural medium that invites experimentation, permits mistakes, and allows reworking. 

Mud play doesn’t have to be outside or full body, although that is a terrific way to enjoy mud. Mud can be scooped onto a cookie sheet, fill up the sensory table, top off a plastic swimming pool, or be discovered in a mud puddle. It can turn an outdoor kitchen area into a mud kitchen. But I have to say that watching children at the Arboretum play in the mud, that the one having the most fun and on whom all eyes were directed was the boy sitting in, covered with, and lolling about the mud patch.  Oh, there is an International Mud Day. But I think any day can and should be a mud day.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Engaging with Matisse

Purple Robe and Anemones (1937)
There was no missing that a major Matisse exhibition was in the Twin Cities recently. For more than 3 months, every walk, bus ride, or freeway trip was in some way in view of a poster of Purple Robe and Anemones. Matisse, Masterworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art was at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts from February 23 to May 18, 2014.

Organized and circulated by the Baltimore Museum of Art, the exhibition spans 6 decades of Matisse’s career. It features 50 works of painting and sculpture, 30 prints, and the artist’s book, Jazz.  Most of the artworks came from the Cone Collection. Two Baltimore sisters–Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone–acquired an exceptional collection of 3,000 modern works (displayed in their apartments) including 500 works by Matisse.

With the exhibition’s announcement in April 2013 and its review on February 22, 2014 in the Star Tribune, visiting Matisse was on everyone’s A-list, especially this cold bleak Twin Cities winter stretching into April. The exhibition was high on my list as well. I have long loved Matisse’s vibrant patterns, broad blocks of color in unusual combinations, and emphatically flat compositions.

Drawing with scissors activity
Due to a busy couple of months for most of the exhibition’s run, I only made it to Matisse on a rainy Sunday afternoon in late April. When I did finally visit and with only 3 weeks before closing, I kept finding successive ways of engaging with Matisse and his work. Altogether, I toured the exhibition twice, listened in on a docent’s tour, eavesdropped on my husband’s audio guide, heard friends’ impressions, took photos, talked with a guard, observed families drawing with scissors, browsed in the museum shop, and visited a companion exhibit, Chasing Matisse, one floor up. This group of multiple experiences differs significantly from my typical pattern of a single visit to an exhibition as it does for most people, I think. While some of my encounters were serendipitous, I nevertheless enjoyed them and valued the intense and extensive engagement they all provided and they added up to.

Now, three weeks later, impressions of the exhibition are strong and surface pleasantly in both substantive and fleeting ways. I continue to make connections and solidify understandings grounded in Matisse. I'm following connections between comments and text, find a question, and recall a fragment from a painting. I am aware of feeling greater interest in the artist's smaller paintings than in his larger paintings, prints or sculptures and to some paintings like Interior, Flowers and Parakeets (1924) especially. At certain moments, I can conjure up the feeling of being back in the exhibition space and enjoying the sensation of a portrait dissolving into pure pattern.

Still Life, Compote, Apples, and Oranges (1899)
An image of the awkward hands folded gracelessly in the lap of The Yellow Dress (1929-1931) persists as well. This detail of the painting troubles me, insisting I explore the reason: its unfinished quality? its clumsiness? something else? I also hear a voice expressing how Matisse feels upon completing a composition, “Each picture, as I finish it, seems like the best thing I have ever done…and yet, after a while, I am not so sure.” It captures perfectly the highs and lows of finishing an exhibition, a master plan, a garden bed, or blog post.

In a daily way, patterns and colors of fabrics surrounding me vibrate more. I want to buy oranges because I remember their rich color in Still Life, Compote, Apples, and Oranges (1899). 

Durable Experiences
Through multiple exposures to an exhibition and its elements, we gather more pieces of information, draw on others’ perspectives, and anchor ideas in other knowledge we hold. The deeper, richer, possibly transformative experiences we hope exhibitions offer visitors rely on aligning a multitude of factors that are intended and serendipitous and that we can and can’t control.  But when exhibitions do manage this choreography of various entry points, complementary opportunities, and extended engagement, they create durable experiences that carry high personal value and lasting impact for visitors and resonate over time.

The character of durable experiences is sufficiently complex that it can't be collapsed into a quick list of criteria and folded into exhibition planning. However, identifying factors that might support durable experiences for visitors could help us understand how to increase the impact and value of experiences museums create. The four qualities below came through in my extended encounters with Matisse. Broadly speaking, they seem to support durability in ways that reflect the complexity of exhibition experiences and our growing understanding of learning in museums. 

The Necessity of Time. Learning, making connections, or incubating ideas needs time. Even though I had an interest in and some familiarity with Matisse, I found I had little background for the focus of this exhibition. A second visit afforded me another opportunity to build up background knowledge. For instance, I needed to read some panels multiple times and on both visits to build the vocabulary for following the panels and consolidating ideas the exhibition covered. Also, it wasn’t until the end of my second visit that the interconnectedness of the artist’s work came into focus. His investigations of issues in sculpture informed his paintings; he drew models and then did paintings of them; in his prints Matisse explored formal concerns related to his sculpture.

Conversation as Intensifier. Whether occurring within or outside an exhibit, conversation and dialogue serve as intensifiers, the way really is an intensifier that adds emotional context to a statement. Conversations introduce new perspectives, create openings, and activate possibilities for making connections and meaning in an exhibition. My friend told me Matisse’s creative process interested her most which I hadn’t thought about on my first visit. On my second visit, I looked for evidence of his creative process and glimpsed it in the 22 highlighted changes that Matisse made to Large Reclining Nude (1935). Nina’s interest alerted me to this propensity to return to and rework compositions, making his thinking about form, color, and line visible. Moreover, I saw this as documentation and how creative thinking might be made visible in an exhibition.

Accumulated Experiences. Multiple, related, and complementary experiences sampled over the course of several weeks extended my engagement with Matisse to open up his remarkable body of work. When accessible, accumulated experiences can be sticky. It is as if each collected experience sets down another adhesive layer with the possibility of more, deeper, and lasting connections. An audio guide, a reading area, the MIA website’s Exhibition Preview, interactions with other visitors, text panels, and the artworks themselves are not unusual experiences for a museum to offer with an exhibition. Most visitors, however, typically accumulate only one or two of the many experiences available. A guard at the MIA told me about Chasing Matisse, the MIA’s companion exhibit one floor up. The reading area prominently located in a corner in the last gallery was well used on both visits. 

Sustained Attention. Eric Siegel of the New York Hall of Science uses the term, sustained attention, in his recent interview with Museum2.0 blogger Nina Simon. Sustained attention, the several hours of attention we give a book or a movie, is one of the goals behind NYSCI’s experiment with a new medium for museums, an ebook. An ebook on the challenging subject of forensic science and the problem of false convictions and my extended engagement with Matisse are vastly different experiences. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, they help illustrate the importance of sustaining interest and attention in a topic, question, or issue to increase durability. Both point to the need for exhibitions–in fact for a substantial portion of museum work–to be compelling, have impact; and for the experience to leave the museum with the visitor, move into everyday lives, inform daily choices, and influence the future. 

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