Real is a Thing That Happens to You: Tracking a Theme Through the AAM Annual Meeting

“Real isn’t how you are made.  It’s a thing that happens to you.”

public domain image of the Skin Horse from Velveteen Rabbit
public domain image of the Skin Horse from Velveteen Rabbit

This year’s American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Annual Meeting wrapped up in Baltimore last week, but I’m still wrapping my mind around some of the ideas that came up in sessions and lively discussion (in person and via the Twitter hashtag #aam2013).  Although the official theme was “The Power of Story”, I walked away thinking that another fitting tagline could have been the above quote from that classic of children’s literature, The Velveteen Rabbit, shared as wisdom from the Skin Horse to the titular lagomorph.

The idea of realness and how that matters in a museum context was on people’s minds throughout the conference, enough that it had a whole session dedicated to it on the first day.  “Is It Real? Who Cares?” brought together a group of museum professionals to engage the room in debate over some knotty questions.  Before you get excited for a recap of that session, I’ll clarify that I wasn’t there.  But they’ve set up a Tumblr that’ll give you some ideas of what you missed, and the handout includes some of the questions that may affect your thoughts about realness.

They ask some great, substantial doozies:

  • Does authenticity of objects matter more or less to different visitors?

  • Can display context render real objects fake or make fake objects seem real?

  • Is the object rendered more real because it’s rare or one-of-a-kind?

If I were feeling more academically-minded, here’s where I’d drop some quotes from Walter Benjamin’s seminal The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction about the aura that a real object has due to its very realness, but I’m only feeling academically-minded enough to use the word “seminal” and bring Benjamin up in the first place.  Besides, he wasn’t speaking at AAM, so I’ll move on.

the mug whose breaking set Rob Walker wondering how stories make us care more about objects, or, as it says on the project’s website: “O.G. S.O.”, photo used with permission from Rob Walker.
the mug whose breaking set Rob Walker wondering how stories make us care more about objects, or, as it says on the project’s website: “O.G. S.O.”, photo used with permission from Rob Walker.

I’m sorry I missed “Is It Real? Who Cares?”, especially because it was the beginning of what became a thematic thread I followed throughout the rest of the conference.  In Tuesday morning’s session, “Significant Objects”, Rob Walker talked with the Center for the Future of Museums’ Elizabeth Merritt about his project of the same name, which started out with Rob and Joshua Glenn collecting thrift store tchotchkes, inviting an array of creative writers to contribute fictional short stories about the objects, and then selling the objects+stories on eBay. You can probably guess the punchline.  The $128.74 worth of knick-knacks sold for $3,612.51.

But did that make those knick-knacks more real?  Would purchasers have paid more if the stories had been nonfiction documents of the objects’ histories (the kind of thing we love to include in museum labels), or was there something special about fiction that drove up the value?

As Elizabeth Merritt put it in that room, there are plenty of stories museums choose to tell about their objects that are factual, but not terribly enlivening or enlightening.

It strikes me that this is part of what’s behind projects like Amuseum Guides or MoMA Unadulterated, unofficial audio guides that offer quirky alternative angles on museums instead of straight facts.  Discover forty-six ways you could be killed by the animals and places in the dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History.  Hear what 3-10 year olds have to say about the art grown-ups like to dismiss with that tired chestnut, “A kid could make that.”

Lively!  Fun!  Encouraging people to see museums in a different way, much like the material shared in the alliteratively alluring AAM session called “Magnificent Masters of Museum Mysteries: Narrative Games in Museum Contexts.”  Seema Rao from the Cleveland Museum of Art, Susan Edwards and Rebecca Edwards (no relation) from the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Georgina Bath Goodlander from the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum all shared games they’ve developed that ask players to use museum objects to help move through stories.  The objects are central to the game experience (visual clues often help answer questions that lead to the next step), but the games aren’t designed to specifically teach the player about the objects.

There are lots of great examples of this kind of approach that privileges the visitor experience and makes museums fun (*gasp*).  Amuseum Guides and MoMA Unadulterated do it.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Murder at the Met: An American Art Mystery does it, inserting museum visitors into a fictional story that requires looking closely at the museum’s objects and allows some leeway between the fact and fiction of the contextual, historical information about those objects.  Visitor engagement and careful observation are the goals, not formal learning about the art.  A true experience in the museum that doesn’t rely on real facts to make it so.

installation view of “Mining the Museum”, Courtesy Maryland Historical Society, Image MTM 037B
installation view of “Mining the Museum”, Courtesy Maryland Historical Society, Image MTM 037B

But how does this sort of true–though not altogether real–experience balance out with museums’ responsibility to offer audiences truthful information?  A central question throughout these sessions, but nowhere more relevant than on the last morning at “Talking About Race: ‘Mining the Museum’ After 20 Years”.  Here was a panel of educators, scholars, and curators talking about Fred Wilson’s 1993 exhibition, “Mining the Museum” at the Maryland Historical Society, where he re-curated displays to juxtapose objects like iron shackles with elaborate silver serving ware and highly finished wooden chairs drawn like an audience around a post once used to whip enslaved people.

Wilson himself joined the panel and spoke eloquently about what inspired the exhibition in the first place.  He talked about being mad walking into museums and not seeing racially diverse stories represented.  “It made the museum complicit in the evils of the past,” he said.  The idea of provenance came up and was questioned.  How is provenance determined, after all?  Is it who owned a thing?  Who cleaned a thing?  Certainly in most museums, that first one trumps all.  Ownership tells us one part of an object’s story, but it’s far from the whole story.

And so ended AAM with these unresolved issues floating through my head. What makes an object real?  Who determines that realness?  How important is that realness to a museum visitor?  And, maybe most importantly to those of us in the museum field, how can a museum balance out the nebulous concept of realness with an authentic, true experience.

I started with a quote, so in the name of symmetry I’ll end with one.  It’s from “Peter and Alice”, a new play by John Logan that I caught in London a few months ago, and it hits on that careful balance between real and true.  The play imagines the conversation that might have happened between the people who inspired Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, and near the end there’s a scene where the real Peter (there’s that pesky word again) is remembering when he first saw Peter Pan performed onstage:

I remember the first time I saw the play. I thought it was all real.  […]

After the performance Uncle Jim took us backstage.  It was a mad bustle, even that was thrilling.  I mean, I knew it wasn’t actually real, I knew they were all actors, and we were in a theater…  But I needed to know if this place existed, if it were somehow true, even though it wasn’t real.  So as the party was going on and everyone was celebrating I wandered onto the stage by myself.  Just me…  How large it was…  I saw the painted backdrop of Neverland.  The pirate ship… the wooden moon…  And I closed my eyes and spread my arms…  And it was true.  […]

For a moment…  Then I opened my eyes and heard the party, and Uncle Jim calling me, and my brothers laughing…  And life went on.

I don’t have neat answers for these questions, but AAM certainly got my mental wheels turning.  Do you have answers?  Thoughts?  Examples of how you find this balance of real and true in your own museum work?


20 thoughts on “Real is a Thing That Happens to You: Tracking a Theme Through the AAM Annual Meeting”

  1. I wish I’d been able to attend AAM this year — sounds like some great sessions, and I love the focus on Stories. In terms of real, I constantly hear concerns and fears about how social media and online engagement/interactive will discourage people to have “real” experiences with “real” objects in the physical spaces of museums. While the data seem to show that this is not the case (online engagement can actually drive museum visitorship), I think it is interesting that museums still gravitate toward the “realness” and “authenticity” that is perceived to be at the core of their mission and purpose. This also comes up when we use MakerBots to print tiny plastic 3D replicas of something in a museum’s collection — to the museum, it’s not the “real thing,” but for a teenage hacker sitting at home in Indiana and printing a replica of a 5000-year-old Sumerian statue from the Met’s collection, it is VERY real.

    1. It’s funny you mention 3D printing, since that’s one area that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, especially in concert with this idea of realness. We recently used a 3D print as a teaching tool for the first time in one of my programs at the Brooklyn Museum (for how that went down, check out the posts here:

      We used a 3D printed replica of an object on a tour for visitors with low/no vision (along with sighted group members), and while adding the touchable element elicited some visitor insights and added something to the conversation, I wonder what other ways there are to use 3D printing to make something engaging, even if it’s not “real”. Remixing objects the way some museums have done might be one way. Or maybe it’s about uploading the photogrametry to places like Thingiverse so that hacker in Indiana can play around with the collections independently.

      Of course, that would mean museums letting go of image copyright restrictions, which gets dicey fast in some institutions/collection areas.

      1. My experiments with 3D printing have been few, but I always find that the 3D image capture process is so fascinating. I find people exploring and discovering objects in such deep, sustained ways — even before they get to printing. And the 3D image files that result are usable in so many interesting ways to allow further explorations of that object. However, the limitations on what can be scanned/captured are still so extreme that out of thousands of objects on view at the Portland Art Museum, we were only able to find a handful or two that could be easily captured using 123D Catch. But I would love to find ways to bring together interested people to do some image capture in the galleries and chat about the failures, successes, and what the files look like printed (if people have access to their own MakerBots). It’s all very “real” and tactile, which I think is why this 3D Printing stuff can be so sticky and attractive.

      2. Mike, I totally agree that there’s something about the very process of doing the scanning for 3D printing that lends itself to looking more closely/in a different way at an object. Makes me wonder how museums might work with 3D printing in ways that don’t have a physically printed object as the ultimate goal.

        We ran into the same trouble at the Brooklyn Museum with finding something that fit the technical/logistical requirements for successful 123D Catch capturing. Interesting how the realness of the objects (which dictates that they be behind plexi, bolted down, not touched, etc) in our collections makes it tricky to create “not-real” digital/3D-printed versions.

      3. Rachel, We are noticing something similar as well at the American Museum of Natural History. What appears to be so powerful about digital fabrication, in part, is how the process teachers the creator how to observe. Very exciting. Very engaging.

      4. Hi Barry.

        I know it’s been ages of internet time (a whole week!) since you posted this, but I wanted to say that I think the AMNH 3D printing is one of the great examples around the city of how museums are thinking creatively about using this particular technology.

        As my little 3D Roosevelt bust watches over me from the top of my computer monitor, I’m looking forward to watching out for what comes out of your creative programming as we go forward.

  2. This topic of the real/authentic object has come up repeatedly with my teacher advisory board.
    When we talk about reasons they bring their students to the museum, “seeing the real thing” is always at the top of the list. An art teachers explained that she wants her students to know people make things, real things, with their hands.
    It’s hard to get away from promoting the authentic aspect of a museum visit when it’s what your audience wants and is excited about. Even if its balanced with all the other great aspects of a school visit.

    1. Becky, you bring up a key issue that I think is an integral part of this debate: who your audience is makes a huge difference. When I work with teachers and students, I mostly encounter the same thing. That’s an audience that’s often using the museum (at least partially) as a learning resource, and they want it to connect with skills students are building in the classroom. That’s a moment when the authenticity is one of the major assets a museum has to offer.

  3. A question I’ve been puzzling over lately is – What do visitors really mean when they ask “Is it real?” I first got this question when I was teaching school programs at the National Portrait Gallery. I was dismayed (mostly because it came at the end of my tour meaning that the student wasn’t sure what she was looking at the whole way through) and also confused. I remember answering with something to the effect of, “Yes, this was painted when the sitter was alive about 200 years ago.” But, I’m not sure if that really answered the student’s question, and I suspect that the visitors asking aren’t really sure what they mean either.

    1. I get that question a lot, too (pretty much always from school groups), and it always puzzles me. I’ve never had time to really turn the question around and ask the student “What do you mean by ‘real’?” I’ve always assumed it’s mostly an age/creator issue for them (is that mummy is actually from ancient Egypt; is that painting the very same canvas Painter X put his brush to), and I’ve always answered with a quick, “Yes, everything in this museum is real”.

      Now I’m cringing a little at my own response, though, and how little room for nuance or discussion there is in my glib “Yes”. Next time someone asks that question, I’d like to try and have a more in-depth conversation about it.

  4. Thanks for writing on this, Rachel. Your point on there being a disconnect in the texture of the question is very relevant and you hit the nail on the head when mentioning that the ‘correct’ answer depends entirely on the audience.

    From my experience on talking to various institutions, conservators, dealers, artists and authenticators, each one has a VERY different perspective on what is real, yet they all agree that the concept of real in the art world has everything to do with someone creating something, whether tangible or not. I think the most distinctive group of people who have a very different view of real are generic aficionados (visitors to galleries and museums) who confuse ‘authentic’ with ‘real’.

    In my view, authenticity has a lot to do with the monetary, exclusivity and rarity value of an artwork. Real has no meaning in that context.

    p.s: I wish I attended the AAM this year. 😦 I run a startup in NYC related to art collection security and authenticity. Would love to hear more on the topics covered.

    1. Thanks for chiming in, Vidyuth. I’m intrigued by the perspective of someone who works with, but not necessarily for art institutions. Especially your thoughts about the “monetary, exclusivity and rarity value of an artwork” contributing to authenticity, and the idea of authentic and real being different.

      How do you see that difference? For me, in museums, most of my audiences seem to define “authentic” and “real” as pretty synonymous with each other.

      1. Thanks Rachel.

        Well, art collectors come from a very different perspective compared to museum audiences. It has a lot to do with intention, and their intention is most likely always to know the price of any object. If it is within their budget, then they immediately worry about “authenticity”. Real or not doesn’t matter, authenticity does because it has a direct monetary value and a perceived investment risk. Then comes the question, “How many works does this artist have in total, please check the catalogue and let me know.” This is obviously leading to owning a piece from a rare/limited collection, which promotes exclusivity.

        I suppose from a museum’s audience perspective, authenticity isn’t that much of a deal because there is a basic threshold of quality/veracity that audiences expect from a piece on display, compared to an art dealer peddling an unknown artwork of significant value. 🙂

        p.s: Since we are in the same city, we should meet up sometime!

      2. Your last thought there intrigues me. The idea that museum visitors come in expecting authenticity, which makes it less of a concern, as opposed to collectors, who are worried about making sure they have an authentic piece by a given artist.

        Different frameworks of expectation around what counts as “real”.

        I’d be more than happy to meet up to discuss in person. My contact info is on my LinkedIn profile, and I’ve just sent you an invite to connect.

  5. As an amendment to this article, here’s a blog post from Paul Orselli, who attended the “Is it Real? Who Cares?” session (as well as the one about Significant Objects). He provides some great description of the former, and also found interesting connections to the latter.

    1. Nice post by Mr. Orselli, thanks for sharing.

      I believe there is a fine line between changing your interpretation/display mechanism to convince the audience of a piece’s ‘realness’ and/or displaying the curator’s interpretation of the artwork via the display mechanism. Many curators don’t understand this and in many cases are not objective about it.

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