Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Exhibit Review

The First Person Museum’s exhibit, Objects Tell Stories displays objects as connections to personal experience. The force behind this exhibit, First Person Arts, endeavors to, “transform the drama of real life into memoir and documentary art to foster appreciation for our unique and shared experiences.”[1] The specific goals of the museum, as identified by one of its historians, are that visitors will 1. recognize that we endow objects with value, 2. recognize that the person and his or her story is the focus; 3. be able to articulate an emotional response, 4. understand that the meaning of the object is influenced by time, place, etc., 5. will think of their own stuff differently.[2] This unique exhibit accomplished its goal of invoking emotion and personally reflective thought in the visitor but lacked the focus necessary for a meaningful experience with regard to history and material culture.

Three distinct spaces created the exhibit. In the first floor of the Painted Bride Art Center, a bright, narrow room held most of the objects on display. The exhibit designer, Aaron Goldblatt, chose to surround the objects with familiar, comfortable home furnishings to simulate their natural environment. For example, “Carla’s Ring” was displayed on an end table, next to a small, black velvet jewelry box. Plexiglas cases encapsulated the objects, distinguishing them from the ordinary items in the room. Near the object, but not always directly next to it, plaques informed the visitor of the name of the object, its owner, quotes from the owner, and the general history of the type of object on display. Most objects also boasted headsets through which visitors could listen to the story behind the object in the owner’s own words. These audio recordings repeated from beginning to end without allowing the visitor control of the moment at which they entered the storytelling. In the back of this room, a small television broadcasted an interview with one of the owner of the fishing license along with images of him fishing.

This first space appeared to be the primary focus of the exhibit. The entrance to the museum opened up into this space. It possessed the most visually stimulating furniture and design and, on the exhibit’s opening night, unceasingly filled with visitors. However, the narrowness of the room led to difficulty in moving among the furniture and the objects. Also, while the objects and plaques were easily accessible, the multitude of headphones often fell by the wayside in the visitor’s efforts to continue to move through the exhibit. In this way, the goal of the First Person Museum to emphasize the importance of memoir and express the primacy of the storyteller failed to meet its full potential, as many of the fascinating individual stories were exclusively confined to the audio segments. This also affects the goal of understanding how people endow objects with value. Aside from the objects’ presence in a museum and the historical backgrounds (which are necessarily brief and generic), the object’s value derives mostly from its owner. For the visitor to fully make that connection, he or she would need easier and more appealing access to the stories.

The final feature of the first space served to encourage visitors to think about objects of value in their own lives and recall the stories behind them. Visitors were invited to sit at a desk and provided with pens and blank cards to record their own meaningful stories about objects and post them on a corkboard for others to read. The number of stories posted, even by the end of the exhibit opening, suggested that this invitation to reflect appealed to visitors and allowed for active engagement with the exhibit. In addition to the blank cards, the writing desk also served to hold pamphlets about the First Person Arts and small booklets that told detailed stories about some objects not featured in the exhibit. These stories provided visitors with more examples as to how to write their own personal story. Furthermore, they allowed for more extensive engagement with a person and his or her personal experience than the shorter anecdotes provided with the objects physically on display.

The second space consisted of a large, open room adjacent to the main room and connected by an open doorway. Unlike the main space, this area contained only a few items. Instead of a cozy, home-like combination of furniture and personal objects throughout the room, a few objects, seemingly of secondary importance, stood against the outer walls. In terms of presentation, they resembled the objects in the main room, with plaques, pictures, and Plexiglas. Yet, their separation from the majority of the collection indicated some kind of inexplicable difference in their purpose or meaning. This space, felt empty and less significant than the busier first space. This complicates how a visitor might question the value of these objects in relation to those displayed in the main room.

On the farthest wall from the entrance to the second room, a colorful collage presented pictures of dozens of people along with captions that briefly related objects of importance to each person. The collage included a wide diversity of people, incorporating Philadelphians of all ages and races. The short captions evoked emotional responses in readers as they related to one or more people and empathized with their stories. The emotional reaction of visitors to this display suggests the value of the written text in relating the personal stories. Unlike the audio, the collage was visible and accessible to many people at the same time and allowed visitors to work through the material at their own pace.

The third and final space existed in the upper level of the Painted Bride Art Center, directly above the main exhibit room. From this loft, visitors could observe people as they walked around the exhibit. Also on this landing, a large couch sat in front of a television that broadcast the same fishing story as the television in the first, exhibit space. This upper level served primarily as a social area for guests, not as a space for exhibiting objects. However, the addition of another writing desk or collage could have added to the décor and better tied the area to the rest of the exhibit.

Walking through the exhibit successfully evoked feelings of curiosity, nostalgia and sentimentality. The quotations and pictures best facilitated these emotions by connecting the visitor to the object’s owner and his or her personal story. However, the disconnect between the objects and the occasional difficulty in matching the story with the owner led to a disjointed feeling in the museum experience. The visitor leaves with a collection of anecdotes that fail to deliver a cohesive message regarding material culture. The histories behind the objects, while intriguing, are overshadowed by the personal stories.The true success of Objects tell Stories is its ability to encourage visitors to think critically about their own objects and what endows them with meaning. This artistic exhibit will certainly provide a model for other museums seeking to create an emotional connection between the objects and their viewers.

[1]About First Person Arts,” First Person Arts website, 2010. Accessed 11/16/10, Stable URL:

[2] Bruggeman, Seth, class lecture, Painted Bride Art Center, September 29, 2010.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Yari's Baby Clothes: Captions

The opening of the new First Person Arts exhibit is quickly approaching! My classmates and I are working on writing individual captions for each object. You can find links to their work here.

I am deciding between a few proposed captions of my own and would greatly appreciate your input. I will post the captions below. Please use the poll on the right to vote for the caption you find most effective to supplement a museum guest's understanding of the history behind Yari's baby clothes.

Caption #1: About Style
Babies born in the early 18th century wore tight swaddling or bodices, designed to restrict movement and straighten the infant’s back. By the mid 19th century, fashionable parents dressed their children in ornate gowns. Frills gave way to practicality with the modern creation of simple, comfortable one-piece garments.

Caption #2: About Movement
The practice of swaddling babies led to the development of bodices in the 18th century. Bodices physically restrained infants and were believed to strengthen their backs. 19th century infants wore elaborate gowns, allowing limited movement under the weight of extensive fabric. Simple 20th century “onesies” permit infants’ unrestricted physical activity.

Caption #3: About Shopping
In 1917, with the increased popularity of ready-made garments, a Chicago department store developed the first department exclusively for children’s products. Items were advertised in women’s magazines and newspapers and the store welcomed children. Isolating goods for children created a new consumer market that targeted both mother and child.

Caption #4: About Mothers
Historically, an infant’s clothing reflects the mother’s values. Mothers used bodices in the 18th century to strengthen their babies’ backs. Victorian era mothers displayed their infants in ornate, long gowns, often with expensive lace. Mothers of the 20th century sought a combination of style and function, such as colorful onesies.

Captions by Lynette Mattson

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Yari's Baby Clothes: Exhibit Design

In her leaflet, "Exhibit Makeovers: Do-it-Yourself Exhibit Planning," Alice Parman encourages readers to remember when they first discovered a curiosity about any given subject. She suggests that exhibit designers use their art to try to evoke those initial feelings of excitement and intrigue for museum guests. Parman characterizes this experience as romance and identifies it as the key factor in a successful exhibit.

In designing an exhibit for the First Person Museum the romance occurs in finding meaning in the mundane. A collection of everyday objects paired with personal stories from their owners give the viewer an intimate connection with the collection. Creating an effective personal narrative for each object combined with historical background will appeal to a viewer on emotional and intellectual level, hopefully inciting a lasting romance with the subject.

In my attempt to design a mock exhibit for the First Person Museum's new collection, I face one key limitation in that I have never visited the space where the exhibit will be displayed. I, therefore, have chosen to design an exhibit in a space that exists only in my imagination. Additionally, while I have had the pleasure of hearing specifics about the actual intended design of the exhibit, I have also given myself free reign to disregard this information in favor of indulging an original (if faulty) idea. To describe my plan, I refer again to Parman's leaflet, where she outlines six steps to designing an effective exhibit.

Step 1: Mission statement, take-home messages, and storyline

The mission statement of First Person Arts is:

"First Person Arts transforms the drama of real life into memoir and documentary art to foster appreciation for our unique and shared experience. We believe that everyone has a story to tell, and that sharing our stories connects us with each other and the world."

The take-home message for this museum is a heightened recognition of the significance of objects in the visitor's own life and their meaning in a greater cultural context. The storyline, or the "so-what" of the exhibit is the ability of objects to reveal stories of community members and their values.

Step 2: Organize your storyline into "galleries of thought"

I aim to organize the exhibit based on categories. The collection contains a variety of different objects, which makes sorting them more of a creative than a logical process. I intend to divide the objects into four categories: 1) Exotic/international (passport, map, wall-hanging); 2) Childhood (baby clothes, stuffed animals, birth certificate, dolls); 3) Decorative (pendant, painting, tie-dye shirt); 4) Utilitarian (adult clothes, pen, pan). The objects listed here are merely a selection of the objects in the collection, but they indicate the organizational structure of the exhibit. In addition to allowing space for these four categories, I intend to also reserve a space for guests to write their own stories, contribute to the First Person website forums or talk among themselves in order to facilitate deeper interaction with the exhibit.

Step 3: Inventory the content and pin down the most important facts

The facts about each object will be presented on typed, laminated cards displayed next to the object. For each object, there will be three cards stacked on top of each other with one edge bound together. The top card will very state the object's name. When the viewer flips the first card, the second will briefly expound on the historical significance of the object. The final card will be the personal story of the object. With this structure, I hope to demonstrate the various layers of meaning within the object in a way that is engaging for the viewer.

Step 4: Find ways to motivate and engage your visitors

The exhibit should be as interactive as possible while respecting the integrity of the valuable objects loaned to the museum. While the objects themselves would be protected from physical interaction with guests, other objects may be placed nearby to allow for simulated interaction. For example, Yari's baby clothes could be displayed next to a cradle that has a doll dressed in similar clothing that visitors could handle. Or a passport could be displayed next to a globe. Furthermore, televisions and stereos will be available for watching and listening to the object's owners discuss their contribution to the museum. By allowing for interaction, the exhibit will be engaging to both adults and children.

The exhibit will also engage visitors by allowing for feedback and contributions. A space in the museum will have computers where visitors can contribute to the forums on the First Person Arts website. Writing desks and supplies will be available for people who wish to record stories by hand. Additionally, chairs, sofas and tables will provide a friendly forum where people are able to discuss the exhibit. Information about First Person Arts in the form of pamphlets and leaflets will also be openly displayed in this space.

Step 5: Plan the "look and feel" of your exhibit

My inspiration for the look and feel of this exhibit came from a poem in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women called "In the Garret." In this poem, the main character examines the objects left by her sisters in her family's attic and, in a way, tells their stories. An attic seems like an opportune space to present ordinary objects that merit saving. I imagine a fairly large, open space that is divided into four separate "galleries" and one community space. The division will be created partially with walls and partially with strategic placement of furniture and rugs to guide the visitor. For instance, when a visitor arrives at the top of the stairs, he or she will face the back of a sofa on one side and a long rug on the other. I imagine, they would instinctively turn away from the wrong-facing furniture and follow the path created by the rug.

The galleries would be designed to create the feeling of an attic, with mismatched items and furniture. Items from the collection would be lit with narrow beams of light from a high ceiling, as if being illuminated with beams of light sifting through the rafters. I want the viewer to feel as though they have the unique privilege of exploring an attic that is not their own and discovering the hidden stories behind each object. In keeping with the attic vibe, the electronics in the exhibit, such as the televisions and computers, would be older models. Ultimately, the exhibit would feel comfortable and colorful without being cluttered.

Step 6: Produce and install your exhibit

Below is a sample floor plan of my exhibit, which I created using For a larger version, please go here.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Yari's Baby Clothes: Social Context

Sociologist, Daniel Thomas Cook, notes that throughout the 20th century, various models existed that identified the relationship of children to the consumer market. The trend of these models increasingly recognized children as autonomous beings, capable of making or, at least, influencing purchase decisions within a household.* However, this autonomy does not begin until a child has the language to articulate his or her thoughts. Infancy is a unique period for viewing a child's relationship to objects. Nurture vastly outweighs nature in the perception of an infant's identity. For a brief time in a person's life, he or she is primarily only capable of projecting an image constructed by someone else. Clothing is an important part of that image. There are two main elements of Yari's clothes that can be considered as culturally constructed: the color and iconic image.

The garment is pink and clearly meant to indicate the gender of the baby. Pink is a color wrought with meaning with regard to gender and sexuality. A simple Google search of "pink color" shows that its meaning is a controversial subject among women, particularly when it is related to children. Some women feel disgusted at its representation of restricted gender roles for women and others claim it as a positive expression of femininity. Debates rage about whether pressing gender-defined objects into a child's life can confuse the child about his or her own gender. Yari's selection of a pink garment might have been a simple decision based on the baby's sex or her own aesthetic preference, but the cultural baggage surrounding the color almost makes the decision worthy of its own op-ed piece in the Times.

The clothing sports an image of Winnie-the-Pooh, a popular bear best known for eating large amounts of honey and being unfailingly good-natured. Winnie-the-Pooh was originally created by A.A. Milne in 1926 and was licensed by Disney in 1961. The stories of Winnie-the-Pooh are innocuous and appealing to children and adults alike. They have been adapted to suit history, philosophy and music and Pooh has become the ultimate symbol of childhood innocence and naive wisdom. It has also become one of many icons of the largest entertainment and media corporation of the world. The image of Pooh is also consistent with massive profits, global marketing, and fiercely protected copyrights and trademarks. While an individual might associate Pooh with nostalgic memories and fond life lessons, most fail to recognize that the accessibility and popularity of Pooh is due to a carefully constructed business plan. One needs only to look at the new Winnie-the-Pooh website to see that the bear and his woodland friends have adapted to appeal to a new generation, as have their merchandise-- Pooh now has his own PlayStation 2 game.

The cultural constructions of pink and Pooh beg the question, to what extent did Yari's free choice enter into her decision to select this particular item of clothing for her newborn daughter? With a society that maintains a constant discourse on gender and a multi-billion dollar corporation striving to make Pooh a member of every family, how much of an infant's image is selected by his or her parents and how much is predetermined by cultural constructions?

*Daniel Thomas Cook, "The Other 'Child Study': Figuring Children as Consumers in Market Research 1910s-1990s," The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Summer, 2000), pp. 487-507.

Yari's Baby Clothes: A Larger Historical Context

Baby clothes illustrate the evolution of a variety of facets of American society. The garments reflect not only the practical needs of an infant, but also the socioeconomic position of the mother, the influence of corporate marketing, and the cultural values associated with children and their rearing.

Baby clothes changed in three basic steps over the course of the 18th century. Initially, babies were dressed in swaddling, keeping the infant warm and essentially immobile. According to a piece published on the Colonial Williamsburg website by curator, Linda Baumgarten, this practice evolved into the use of bodices, which were supposed to strengthen a child's back. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, looser clothes became popular for young children, allowing for greater physical movement.

With regard to the 19th century, "Victorian fashion enthusiast," Kathy Hammel, looks to popular women's magazines and books to understand the ideology behind children's garments in the 1850s. Hammel describes infants wearing "long gowns" that primarily varied only in style. Hammel also, perhaps unintentionally, touches on the tension between ornamenting and protecting a child. She refers to mothers of this decade trussing up their babies in finery, while ignoring the practical needs of the child. Her sources indicate that a child's clothes symbolized the wealth and social status of the mother.

Sociologist, Daniel Thomas Cook, pinpoints 1917 as the year in which "infant's departments" began to become part of the common trade in the United States. These departments, of course, were designed to attract mothers as consumers on behalf of their children.* The one-piece item of baby clothing, known as the romper, began to appear in advertisements in the early 20th century. This is the first hint of the item that would become a "onesie," such as the one owned by Yari.

While the infant bodysuit is commonly known as a "onesie," the word itself is actually a trademark of the Gerber corporation, which produces its own particular line of this type of clothing item. Its competitors are compelled to use other names for the item. While Yari describes her daughter's clothing as a onesie, it is unlikely it was actually produced by Gerber because the "Winnie-the-Pooh" design is not part of Gerber's line of clothing.

Ultimately, Yari's baby clothes enter the greater historical picture at a time when infant clothing reflects several aspects of modern life: technology producing clothes of higher quality and function, endless consumer options, media-enhanced marketing, and new meanings of motherhood.

*Daniel Thomas Cook, "The Mother as Consumer: Insights from the Children's Wear Industry, 1917-1929," The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Summer, 1995), pp. 505-522.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Yari's Baby Clothes: Object History

Yari's baby clothes had a long history before Yari. Textile manufacturers, clothing designers, factory workers, truck drivers and retailers all influenced the life cycle of this ordinary onesie. Its owner changed multiple times and each altered the path of the object without knowing that it would eventually reach a young mother and her newborn baby girl.

While tracing the life cycle of the clothing would provide interesting insight into the multitude of factors that contributed to the production and distribution of the onesie, I prefer to examine the more specific biography of the clothing and its owners. A certain amount of this analysis is speculative, as I do not know the details about Yari's acquisition of the onesie. However, even a limited story unveils questions about the role of ownership in the life of a mother and her baby.

The newborn-sized onesie might have been purchased or gifted. Its receipt, however, indicates preparation for a baby. When Yari took ownership of the clothing, the role of the clothing changed from being a product to a possession. It lost significance as a commodity for the retailer, but gained practical and sentimental value to its new owner.

When Yari's baby was born, she gave the clothing a new owner. Yari's daughter was, perhaps, the only owner of the object who did not choose to own it. At this point, the onesie was subject to a shared ownership by both Yari and her daughter. To the daughter, it had (albeit unknown to her) utilitarian and comfort value. To the mother, it provided utilitarian and emotional value.

Yari's daughter has since grown out of her first clothing and, effectively, has relinquished her share of ownership in it. Yari, however, chooses to keep the clothing as a fond reminder of her daughter's first days. As the object will probably not be used again, it has lost all utilitarian value for Yari and, yet, is increasingly precious as her daughter grows.

When the clothing enters the museum exhibit, along with Yari's story, it will once again become a shared object as a multitude of viewers appreciate its value as a sentimental object.

There is a fantastic synchronicity with the timing of this post as I recently learned that my dear friend, Brooke, is currently at the hospital awaiting the birth of her own daughter. I have no doubt that, several years from now, Brooke will have a onesie of her own tucked away in a closet, signifying this day.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Yari's Baby Clothes: Object Description

The object I will be examining over the next few weeks is Yari’s baby clothes. This item of clothing belonged to Yari’s daughter, who wore them home from the hospital after her birth.

I have not had the opportunity to view this object yet, but I have a written story about the item which facilitates a basic description of the clothing.

The baby clothing is a pink “onesie,” which is a one-piece item that covers the baby’s torso and clasps between his or her legs. It could be be short or long sleeved. Onesies are intended to be an affordable and practical wardrobe addition for a baby as they have snaps or buttons at the crotch to make the process of changing diapers easier. Additionally, onesies are lightweight, easily washable and convenient, as the outfit has no additional components. Yari's onesie is sized “newborn,” which is the smallest size of clothing available for babies (with the exception of preemie sizes) and is intended for babies who weigh between five to eight pounds.

In addition to its practicality, a onesie is also designed to provide a comfortable, warm wrapping. A variety of soft fabrics are used to produce this type of clothing and it serves as a light outfit in the summer and a cozy undergarment for blustery days. Yari’s baby clothes depict the familiar character of Winnie-the-Pooh as an indication of its suitability for an infant. Finally, the gentle pink color is appropriate for a delicate baby, as well as conveniently indicative of the baby’s sex.

The fabric, brand name and cost of this item are unknown at this time. Unfortunately, until I interact with the object, I am as stuck as Pooh himself in my effort to provide further physical description. Next week, I am scheduled to visit Yari’s baby clothes at the First Person Museum and I will report back with more details and, perhaps, a picture. In subsequent entries, I will begin to examine the personal story behind the clothes and their social and cultural context.