Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Memory Jar

Where do ideas come from? So much of what I do is about communicating through story. I do that through writing, painting, public speaking and video. Before I can do any of that I need to take in content, to fill my mental gas tank with fuel. I need inputs as well as outputs lest I be running on fumes. Input comes from observation, interviewing, reading and education. Often that education occurs in the form of conferences and the past week I attended two of them, one in San Francisco and a later one in St Paul. I've since settled in back at home and am considering those inputs, what I learned that I might carry forward into my work.

The San Francisco conference was put on by the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM). It is a fun conference even for non-museum professionals because we visit museums, some Jewish, others broader in scope.

The theme was Open Source. So what does that mean? It is a techie term from the most techie region of our country. Open source promotes universal access by offering a free license to a product's design and universal redistribution of that design. It incorporates subsequent improvements to it by anyone. Think Wikipedia from which this definition comes.

Now carry that concept over to museums. For museums it means relinquishing control to let other voices and audiences in and engaging audiences and communities in an interactive process that changes the offering. In that process transformation can happen.  The question of the day is how do you become an agent of transformation? Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimlett of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews spoke to that concept. At her museum they try to change the conversation, stepping out of the shadow of the Holocaust to engage audiences in understanding the integral role Jews played in the history of Poland. It is a reclaiming of 1000 years of history. She noted that she is often asked why the museum is in Poland. Her response is that is where there is an opportunity for transformation.

The other hot topic is engaging Millenials. Never did a baby boomer feel so passé. There was lots of focus on how to reach an audience that commits last minute, has a much broader definition of what is cultural and seldom would go to a museum alone. One of our speakers was a young woman from the Academy of Science in San Francisco who has the unique title of Nightlife Coordinator. She throws parties with science content that attract up to 2000 young people. They have themes such as time capsules, robots and sharks. How cool is that?

So what does an artist take from a museum conference? A concept I've already been developing in my work happened to dovetail nicely with a presentation on an exhibition of memory jars by Nina Simon, Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

I've written in this blog of a gift of a memory jar I once made for my mother many years ago. It was at a time when her memory was quite good and I never thought of it worsening. I purchased a ceramic jar that had the label "memories" carved into it. I then wrote out memories that we shared or that I had of her, some from our trips together, some from my childhood. The act of doing it touched me. It was a litany of what I love in her. The jar sat on a shelf high on the bookcase until I noticed it on a recent visit. I took it down and together we drew out each memory and remembered it together. Some she recalled, others took some assisted remembering. When we had gone through all the memories she thanked me for helping her remember.

My sister lives closer and goes in weekly. On one of her recent visits she heard a noise in the kitchen and poked her head in. There was my mother laughing at a memory from the memory jar.

In May I will be sharing several pieces on loss of memory at a caregiver conference and had been thinking of calling the series The Memory Jar based on a painting/collage with that title.

When Nina spoke she told us about the exhibit they did of memory jars. They invited visitors to fill a mason jar with objects tied to a personal memory. They also wrote a label that described their memory. Over three months they collected 600 jars.

As I sat in the session the wheels were turning. Was there a way I could make my exhibition interactive?

By the next session I had decided to include a memory jar with the exhibition and invite attendees to contribute a memory about their loved one, a memory perhaps no longer retained by their family member. The memory would represent the fact that they were now the keeper of the memory. With their loved one they could remember it together just as I did with my mother.

By a later session I was contemplating how to turn the memory jar into an art piece on its own and still later how I could work with the contents of the jar to create yet another art piece. This is a bit of a test, more limited in scope because of the short duration of the conference. A lengthier exhibition could invite more extensive participation similar to that of the Santa Cruz museum, but focused on the theme of memory loss. I returned a few days ago and the first thing I did was purchase a jar and paint it.

One other concept that was discussed at the conference was the Pop Up Museum. The Pop Up Museum is a temporary exhibit that is created by the people who show up to participate. They may bring objects such as the memory jars, but the concept is often very time limited and in unorthodox settings. I was chatting with a new museum friend about the fact that I wasn't employed by a museum when she looked at me and observed,"You're a pop-up museum".

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