Today is my first day as an intern at the Museum of Russian Icons, in Clinton, MA.
Some facts about the museum:
- It was established in 2006 by Gordon Lankton, chairman of Clinton’s Nypro plastics factory. He began collecting icons on various trips to Russia until he had so many cluttering up the house that his wife politely suggested he do something more productive with them. The solution was naturally to create a museum.
- The collection contains over 500 icons, and new acquisitions are made each year in addition to pieces on loan from other institutions. It is the largest publicly displayed collection of Russian icons outside of Russia, and before that was one of the largest private collections.
- The museum is housed in a former mill and courthouse/police station, both of which were constructed in the 19th century. The interiors were gutted and completely redesigned to provide a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled environment to ensure the icons’ preservation. Some original historic elements were incorporated into the new design, including the courthouse’s jail cells in the lower level, which now house computers with educational programs.
- Mr. Lankton also collects African art, much of which is located in a public gallery behind a local boutique store. The expanding collection will likely need a new, permanent home as soon as funding and bureaucracy allows.
- One of the most persistent local legends about Clinton, MA is that it holds the Guinness Record for “most bars per capita in the United States.” While Clinton may be a contender, there is no such record: http://www.wickedlocal.com/clinton/news/x563275845#axzz1iVgyiu1T
Today is Family Day, the museum’s annual holiday celebration featuring folktale storytelling, crafts, and cookie decorating. Attendance is up significantly since last year; I think the MoRI is making real progress in breaking down any preconceived notions the American public may have about Russian art, especially Russian Orthodox art (i.e. that it is serious, dry, and/or not child-friendly). Creating an environment sympathetic to icons while simultaneously making them appealing to a broader audience must be a difficult path to navigate, and I have to say I am pleasantly surprised to see so many families visiting.
This afternoon I was actually able to participate in the process of developing some “edutainment” for the museum’s under-10 set. Based on a similar activity from the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, my supervisor got the idea to make an A to Z scavenger hunt. Many of the icons are richly detailed, particularly hagiographical or “vita” icons (ones with multiple scenes from the lives of a saint) or those of biblical/apocryphal scenes. On closer inspection, a museum visitor may find many symbolic objects and animals embedded in these scenes. A scavenger hunt would allow children and parents to point them out and ask questions on their own terms, instead of listening to endless scholarly interpretations.
Working on this project was enlightening for me, as it was somewhat challenging to select objects that a 21st-century American child could identify from a 16th century Russian Orthodox painting. Angel, crown, sword, and halo were easy enough, but some words were on the fence, like Nativity. ultimately it was decided that it would be preferable to mix in some more challenging words, which would spark questions and conversation.
As I went through the galleries with my notebook, I became increasingly interested in creating an A to Z Teen Edition a la the Gashlycrumb Tinies, given the more disturbing content that often shows up in icons of martyrs (like Saint Anastasia or John the Baptist). I is for Immolation, B is for Beheading…but then again, I always forget that P is for Politically Correct.
Like most other museums, convincing the local community that the MoRI is accessible to all, as opposed to an ivory tower, is high on the priority list. As a result, the staff is constantly communicating with
townies local leaders and developing community outreach ideas. A fairly common program is to provide activities that local Boy or Girl Scouts can use to fulfill their merit badge requirements. The Corning Museum of Glass is an excellent example of how a seemingly obscure and specific cultural institution can create appealing educational programs for scouts, most of whom are in elementary school.
If they can do it, perhaps we can! This involves researching all the requirements for merit badges at each level of scouting: Tiger/Wolf/Bear Cub Scouts, Webelos, and Eagle Scouts for boys; Daisy, Brownie, Junior, Cadette, and Senior for girls. Boy Scouts, that bastion of conservatism, rarely changes its badge requirements aside from the necessary periodic additions to keep up with changing technologies.
Girl Scouts, however, is another story. Girl Scouts has changed significantly since I was a wee Brownie, because girls don’t just need to keep up with changing technologies, they need to keep up with changing styles! In order to do so, Girl Scouts recently revamped their entire program and named the resulting system “Journeys.” Looking over the material, the substance is actually not all that different from how I remember my Brownie Handbook. It’s now just buried under twice the color, three times the exclamation points, and a coterie of charming, bubble-headed elf mascots.
Unfortunately for me and the MoRI, the Lisa-Frank-ification of Girl Scouts means it will be a while before I can gets my hands on the new requirements and then draft a few activities to satisfy both Boy and Girl Scout requirements, most likely in Art, Storytelling, and American Cultures.
The museum has been packed all this week because of the holiday break combined with the unseasonably warm weather—everyone wants to get their last breath of fresh air before the outside world as we know it turns into a grayscale Impressionist painting. Over 300 visitors! New membership brochures came in, with the modified hours, fees, and admission that will take effect after the New Year. My job is to make sure every gift shop bag has a brochure in it, although my skills are apparently inferior to those of the juvenile delinquent who used to stuff bags to complete his community service hours. At least he didn’t lock himself in the basement storage closet and set off the fire alarm…
Today I went with my supervisor to visit “Africa,” the ever-expanding gallery of African art currently housed in the back room of Sunrise Boutique on Clinton’s High Street. Like its real-life counterpart, Africa is sort of in limbo as the Powers That Be try to decide who owns what (it is technically a “gallery” not a “museum,” so there are some bureaucratic issues that need to be ironed out), and what the best long-term plan would be for it.
All I know is that a plan should probably be put in order as soon as possible, seeing as there is now an enormous Baga headdress sitting next to me in the research library for lack of a home.
My challenge today was to accession newly-acquired pieces for the African gallery using Past Perfect 5.0, a software program for museums (or really avid collectors, I guess) to create a searchable database of every artifact in a collection. “Accessioning” is the process of documenting an artifact as fully as possible and registering it as part of an institution’s official collection.
Past Perfect creates a page for each object, listed under both its name and its Accession Number. Accession Numbers can get somewhat complicated and are certainly not consistent from museum to museum, but they typically consist of a date (the year the object was acquired and/or accessioned) and a sequential number. The numbers may be prefaced by a letter to indicate the department/collection to which the object belongs—for example, A for African (ex. A2005.051) or R for Russian (ex. R2005.011). In larger institutions, departments may simply reserve blocks of numbers—for example, for all objects accessioned in a given year (say 2005), the first 200 sequential numbers (2005.001 to 2005.200) may be reserved for African art and the next 200 sequential numbers (2005.201 to 2005.400) for Russian art. Items comprised of multiple pieces may have alphabetical suffixes (a Faberge egg may be 2012.001a and its ornamental stand 2012.001b).
I first worked with Past Perfect in high school, as a member of my local art and historical society. The society had been accumulating donated objects from community members for years (daguerreotypes, family bibles, etc.), and eventually the paper documentation used for the collection became unmanageable. Using the new Past Perfect system, however, was almost as unmanageable for the society leaders, many of whom had never even sent an email. Eventually fighting broke out over the Accession Numbers for a set of china. Should a teacup and saucer be documented as two separate objects? Or are they inseparable components of a singular functional object?
Other information about an object is also recorded on its Past Perfect page: its cultural and/or historical origins, artist (if known), materials, dimensions, a brief description, any more extensive research that has been done on it, its purchase cost or estimated value, and where/when/from whom it was purchased. This latter information is known as “provenance” and forms a kind of pedigree for the object; this helps to ensure that objects were acquired ethically instead of on the thriving black market for illicit art and antiquities.
While negotiating the Girl Scouts’ byzantine new awards program, I came across a friendly Orwellian message to the Daisies:
This page has the following sub pages.