"Museum Hack" Hacks the Digital Wing: Part 1

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"Museum Hack" Hacks the Digital Wing: Part 1

part 1 of a 3-part blog series (Read part 2 and part 3)

They’ve hacked The Metropolitan Museum of Art. They’re hacking the American Museum of Natural History. Now, Museum Hack has hacked Reynolda - the Digital Wing.

When Reynolda House launched the new reynoldahouse.org, the center of its new digital wing, in the fall, the New York-based company that leads “un-highlights tours” of two of the world’s most renowned museums seemed like a perfect partner to help launch the site. The feisty fellows at Museum Hack took to our online collections to find the unexpected, the sexy, and the curious, and curated a gallery for “people who usually don’t like museums.” The catch? It works for people who love museums, too.      

Here, enjoy the scoop behind some of the picks in the Museum Hack gallery, in their own words. Read more in the Press Room


Gaiety Burlesk, Reginald Marsh 

Reginald Marsh was obsessed with burlesque halls - he claimed he felt kinship to the lower class people who went there, but, really, it seems like this Yale-trained artist might have been a little obsessed with "slumming" with "ladies of the night." He got hired by the New York Post to sketch vaudeville and burlesque shows for them, and draw cartoons for the paper's column, "People We'd Like to Kill but Don't." I love the audience in this one: half the guys look like they've never seen a naked lady before, a few look downright bored, and at least one guy in the balcony is barely peeking over the rim to see the show (maybe he's afraid.) Feminists hate Marsh because he makes women either overdone, asexual, or matronly. The dancer has an ample rear, ridiculous features and seems totally overwrought, but she's not the only woman in the image. In the back, a lady exits. What has she been up to? Prostitute, maybe (and historically accurate for the day). I like to think she's got someone's wallet in her out-of-the-image hand. Payback? (Follow the link in the title to see this image and its full info.)

 --- Ethan for Museum Hack



Ashtray with matchbox holder

This is a blinged-out ashtray; totally decadent and not really practical, as it wouldn’t make the act of getting a match out and striking it any easier (I like to think of it as something you’d see in an old-timey version of SkyMall magazine). However, the process of how it was made is really fascinating. It uses a French process called repousse, which literally means to "push back." Basically, artists carve into a piece of wood an image they want reproduced in inverse. Then, they hammer metal into the wooden mold. This process is useful for medallions, ashtrays (apparently) and….The Statue of Liberty (yes, really). The designer, Edward F. Caldwell, was also one of the first people to design fixtures for Edison's light bulb, and was a frequent collaborator with McKim, Mead and White, who were designers on the expansion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art!

 --- Ethan and Kate for Museum Hack

*The County Election, John Sartain

This is an image of a county election, but meant to say that voting and Democracy was not awesome for everyone. First, this is a verbal vote, so everybody can basically hear what everyone else is saying. In the front, we have a portly gentleman being served by the only African American in the image -- a man who cannot vote. On the right side, a guy has a bandage around his head, which means he has probably been beat up for the way he voted. Two boys are playing mumbly-peg in the front, a knife-throwing game where the loser has to pull the knife out of the ground with his teeth, which suggests that this election is also a bit of a game. But my favorite detail is the political operative dragging the drunk guy in the back. This connects back to Edgar Allan Poe, who was a good friend and associate of John Sartain. Sartain was the publisher of Sartain's Union Magazine. He published some of Poe's work, including "The Bells" and "Annabel Lee" (both posthumous). Poe visited Sartain a few months before he died, asking to stay the night and telling him that people were after him to kill him over "women troubles." While Poe's demise is still a bit of a mystery, one theory about his alcohol-induced death was that somebody was essentially trying to buy his vote. In the 1840s, it was common for political operatives of a candidate to find people, get them drunk, dress them in another person's clothing, drag them to a polling place and have them vote as someone else, in order to ensure a candidate's win. Poe was actually a bit of a teetotaler, but was found dead of alcohol poisoning, in someone else's clothing. This was painted 4 years after Poe's death, and depicts that exact activity. Coincidence? Maybe. But still a fun historical tidbit.

 --- Ethan for Museum Hack

*Editor's Note: This entry was removed from original blog posting at 8:43 p.m. 2014-02-26 and reposted 10:19 a.m. 2014-02-27. More information to follow while we pursue a curatorial conundrum.

Image Credits: 

Edward F. Caldwell & Company, Ashtray with Matchbox Holder, circa 1917. Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Reynolda Estate, 1922.2.48.

John Sartain (1808–1897) after George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879), The County Election, 1854. Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1983.2.37.


RE: Curatorial Conundrum 

Posted on behalf of Allison Slaby, Reynolda House curator. 

I’m really excited about our collaboration with Museum Hack, so was eager to see their reactions to our collections. When I saw from our Facebook post on Wednesday night that the first blog entry was up, I clicked on it immediately. The entry for our print titled "The County Election" was lively, engaging—and wrong. The author, Ethan, discussed the artist, John Sartain, and his connection to Edgar Allan Poe. But Sartain is actually the printmaker; the artist, or the inventor of the picture, is George Caleb Bingham. I wondered how this mistake could have happened, and took to our online collections to dig deeper. Actually, as I soon discovered, the problem was even bigger than I first realized—our own website identified the artist as John Sartain! Because I wrote the entry on The County Election myself, I knew the information in our internal database (TMS) was correct. Why, then, was it incorrect on the website? 

It turned out that the issue is how the website pulls information from the TMS database. The traditional mode of addressing the maker of a print based on a painting is to list the name of the engraver first, followed by the name of the painter, like this: “John Sartain (1808–1897) after George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879).” This means that George Caleb Bingham created the painting; subsequently, John Sartain made an engraving based on the painting for mass distribution. So, Bingham is considered the artist and Sartain the printmaker. But because Sartain’s name comes first in this formula for identifying painter and printmaker, our website, which was coded to pull the first name, pulls only Sartain’s name from the database.

The morning after the gallery and blog post went live, we quickly pulled together as a team—staff from our curatorial, collections, and marketing and communications/website departments—to brainstorm the solution. Could we create an “artist” field with biographies on both Bingham and Sartain? Nope; our database guru, Meghan, said that TMS only recognizes individual artist constituents. Should we substitute Bingham’s name for Sartain’s? Would that discount the important role the printmaker plays in the creation of this object? We decided to use Bingham’s name instead, but we’re still working on figuring out how to get Sartain in there, too.

So, Museum Hack ended up writing about an object labeled on our own website with incorrect information (sorry, Ethan!). The unanticipated upside: we actually feel pretty good about the fact that this partnership with Museum Hack exposed a flaw in the way that we asked our database and our website to talk to each other. I also really appreciated the way we all came together to fix a complicated curatorial/collections/digital conundrum.  Finally, this situation brought up a number of interesting issues around the topic of visitor-centered learning, which is an idea we’re thinking and talking a lot about at the Museum these days: when you surrender your curatorial “voice,” you run the risk that the information shared about your collection will be flawed—but you also gain unexpected connections (who knew that Sartain knew Poe?!), new perspectives, and the chance to empower visitors, both virtual and real.

RE: Curatorial Conundrum 

Posted on behalf of Meghan Maher, Reynolda House Assistant Collections Manager. 

Last week’s Museum Hack blog post was a compelling example of the intersections between curatorial, digital, and collections management expertise, and how they together shape the information that we present to our audiences. Reynolda House uses The Museum System 2012 (TMS), a collections management relational database, to manage our collections both physically and digitally. Certain information in TMS is vetted and designated for the website, which then relies on a set code to pull that data to our online collections database that visitors can use for browsing the collections. This interface can be complex, but is ultimately one of the most valuable steps in ensuring the broadest access to our collections. Because of this, we knew we had to act quickly once we discovered our “conundrum!”

From a collections management perspective, two larger discussions were raised through this experience. The first is how we treat “Constituents” in TMS, which are object stakeholders like artists, engravers, donors, lenders, and whoever else is associated with the object. In the Sartain/Bingham case, we had chosen to list John Sartain as the first constituent and engraver, and Bingham as the second constituent and artist. In our current environment, our website displays only the first constituent to the website, meaning that the important secondary identifiers of these artist/makers is missing.  We agreed that we must find a way to address both constituents’ integral roles in the creation of the artwork. The question of what the definition of “artist” means and how to broaden that to include roles such as engraver is an important one, since it has a philosophical impact on how our collections are understood. In order to gather more information about how our colleagues in the field address problems like these, we decided to pose the problem to the TMS listserv, a resource for registrars and database administrators that is hosted by the Smithsonian Institution. Several responses have already been posted, so more to come on this indispensable advice from colleagues in the field.

The second issue brought to the forefront was an internal one of how to treat and use our database, which is still extremely new to the Museum. During our meeting the morning after the issue was discovered, and after we realized the information was incorrect on our website, we started off by talking about the issue in terms of a “database failure;” however, after talking through the problem, it became clear that the opposite was in fact true – TMS and the website interface performed exactly as instructed! Content is only as good as the manner in which it is managed, and in this case it became clear that any “failure” was actually an opportunity for our team to find a more accurate way to depict the Artist-Engraver relationship. The experience also emphasized the importance of data standards and protocols – while my colleagues’ suggestion of creating a hybrid artist record in the database was extremely creative, it would also move against the high standards for data entry we’ve established by muddying the waters between the two constituents and possibly creating confusion for future cataloguing.

I’m confident that we will find a way to better address multiple-constituent works of art in the near future (we’re already working with our website designers at Interactive Knowledge on this), and by working through these fascinating issues together across departments, we’ve become a better team in terms of understanding each other’s particular lens of experience. As our Curator Allison wrote, the unexpected benefits of these kinds of conundrums are often invaluable, and in this case I think we can continue to learn from the connections made by our colleagues in the field and by our own willingness to respond and flex with the changing needs of our audience and collections. 

RE: Curatorial Conundrum
Posted on behalf of Kathleen Hutton, Reynolda House Director of Education 
So after reading the earlier postings my question is: which artist gets your vote? 
There is no argument that George Bingham (1811-1879) was the artist who conceived of and produced the oil painting, The County Election, in 1851-52. I found it interesting that Bingham was a politician himself—he was elected in 1848 to the Missouri State Legislature representing Saline County, but lost the 1850 election that is supposed to be the subject of this image (painting and print!). Bingham’s victorious political opponent was E. D. Sappington, presumably the smiling gentleman doffing his shiny top hat while offering his card to each voter as he climbs the steps to the courthouse porch. Some critics think Bingham is the man sitting on the courthouse steps below Sappington (loser shown below the winner). It might be that Bingham felt he lost as a result of some of the less savory shenanigans that are going on in this picture (and that you can read about in the detailed description). But the politician-artist, if that is indeed Bingham in a tan suit and light jacket, seems to be quite calm about the events going on around him. He is sitting cross-legged, head tilting downwards and so the viewer can’t see what he is doing—is he writing, or sketching the scene? Despite the flaws in the electoral process, Bingham’s image celebrates the uniquely American system of elected government which the artist knew firsthand, and does it make any difference that the particular artwork in Reynolda House’s collection is not the actual painting, but a hand-colored engraving? 
The painting The County Election (1851-2) is in the collection of the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM), which owns an impressive amount of Bingham’s work. In fact, Bingham’s other version of The County Election is also owned by SLAM. Bingham used his political savvy to create interest in his image and he turned to the most important engraver of the day, John Sartain (1808-1987). He chose Sartain specifically to make the large scale reproductions of his painting and he even made a second painting to drum up interest in the print sales.
 The artwork that is in Reynolda House’s American art collection is the engraving designed by John Sartain to reproduce Bingham’s painting. Although Bingham was directly responsible for and involved in the commission and publication of the print, we should acknowledge that great talent and skill were required to translate brushstrokes into lines this successfully. I’d bet Bingham was probably fussy about this, so well done, Sartain! 
So back to our “museum election” and like a lot of political issues, it depends on spin. If one asks, who is the artist who created the image in the Reynolda collection? The answer is clearly George Bingham. But if one asks, who is the artist who made the print in the Reynolda collection? That answer would be John Sartain. (We won’t worry about yet another artist who tinted the image to look like the painting). 
Which artist gets YOUR vote for top billing in our digital exhibition?

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