Saturday, March 29, 2014

Using Comparative History at Historic Polegreen Church in Mechanicsville, Virginia

by Elizabeth Baker, Director of Education and Outreach, and Kyle Meadows, Curator of Historic Resources, Historic Polegreen Church Foundation

The fight for religious freedom in Virginia began in Hanover in the early 1700s led by Samuel Morris and his group of dissenters against the Anglican Church. Between 1747 and 1759, Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies led the same group of dissenters in worship at Polegreen Church, the site of which now belongs to the Historic Polegreen Church Foundation. It is our goal at Polegreen to educate the public about the lengths Davies and the Hanover dissenters went to in order to gain freedom of religion--the freedom to practice any religion, or no religion at all.

One of the major comparative themes that we touch on in our interpretation of Historic Polegreen Church is the issue of church and state. In the 1770s, the Hanover dissenters fought for complete separation between the established Anglican Church and the state, in part claiming that a nation desirous of freedom had to include the freedom to believe according to one's own conscience. Their work was an important stepping-stone for Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom and the First Amendment.

Open up a modern newspaper, turn to a cable news channel, or go online, and people can find any number current events that relate to separation of church and state. Issues such as the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage often delve into religion, causing us to question what the Founders intended by the separation clause of the First Amendment, and how accommodating should the government be towards those with strongly held beliefs? We at Historic Polegreen find that it is not only useful, but also critical to our education goals to ask our visitors to think about the modern incarnation of religious freedom and how it compares to the struggles of Samuel Davies and the Hanover dissenters.

This summer, we are hosting a teacher institute in partnership with the First Freedom Center that will focus on the importance of religious freedom today, and how best to objectively teach religious freedom in the classroom. We'll ask teachers to engage in dialogue comparing the dissenters' fight to present-day struggles for freedom, and we'll discuss ways to tie religious freedom and the Polegreen story into SOLs for public schools. Comparing the experience of Davies and his followers to global and national struggles for freedom today makes history relevant to visitors of all ages.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Law of Unintended Consequences

by Adam Wallach, K-12 Coordinator for Social Studies, Stafford County Public Schools

The debate about eliminating SOL End Of Course Exams has risen to a fever pitch. There are a number of bills in the state legislature that call for cutting Social Studies and Science SOL exams. After having successfully fought off this issue in years past, it appears inevitable that there will be fewer tests possibly as early as next academic year. Less testing sounds wonderful! It is surely something that everyone can get behind- Democrat and Republican, Conservative and Liberal, student and teacher.

While, in theory, I am against high stakes testing because they rarely test what they claim to test, cause test anxiety in young students, and tend to favor a small number of students whose strength is demonstrating what they know on a traditional assessment. Despite my objections to high stakes, standardized tests, I disagree vehemently with removing SOL tests in Social Studies. Before you call me a hypocrite and burn me in effigy, let me lay out a case for why cutting SOL tests in Social Studies is more harmful than any potential benefits.

We have been subjecting students to high stakes SOL testing for almost 20 years. In that time, there is a well know axiom in public education. “If it isn’t tested, it isn’t taught.” Currently, the bills before the Virginia Senate seek to eliminate testing primarily in Social Studies, but also in Science. Specifically, HB 930 would remove SOL tests for 3rd Grade Social Studies, World History I (5th grade in Stafford) and World History II (6th grade in Stafford). Once these tests are gone, there is no accountability that the curriculum will be taught in any meaningful way. Even with the tests, the time allotted to teach Social Studies in elementary and middle schools has been disappearing. If the focus of the federal government and now state government is only on Mathematics and Reading, I fear that Social Studies instructional time will continue to dissipate. This trend of taking time from Social Studies in favor of Math and/or Reading is not just a Virginia issue, it is happening nationally.

The supporters of eliminating tests want fewer assessments especially in elementary school. HB930, which already passed the House and is in the Senate, calls for each school system to develop their own assessment to replace the SOL tests that are eliminated. If the purpose for removing tests is to unburden young students, clearly, this bill does not achieve that. It is counterintuitive to say you want fewer assessments, but you are actually keeping the same number. Additionally, the SOL test at the end of the course is not really the issue when you think about over-testing. All of the other testing that individual school systems require will still remain intact: Pre/Mid/Post tests, benchmark testing, universal screeners, diagnostic tests, teacher made tests and quizzes, mid-term exams, final exams, etc.

Some of my colleagues in the Social Studies community believe that they are leading a crusade to change testing in Virginia. Until the federal government treats all four core areas equally, it is naïve to think that advocating changes in Social Studies testing will impact how students are assessed by the state in Math or Reading. To truly change testing in the Commonwealth, the whole testing system needs to be overhauled. I believe and advocate fewer tests that are interdisciplinary. If we are serious about ensuring students possess 21st Century Skills and are career and college ready, we need to test skills not just content. Tests should have open ended scenarios that require students to analyze, synthesize, create, and use multiple skills from across the entire curriculum. This approach would allow for a real reduction in tests. For instance, instead of four SOL exams in 3rd grade create two tests. One would test use Reading as the basis, but incorporate Social Studies and Science content and skills. The other test would focus on Mathematics, but the questions would incorporate Science and Social Studies skills and content.

How does all of this impact Virginia museums and historical sites? You should be concerned about the “Law of Unintended Consequences” with any bill that eliminates Social Studies SOL tests. Once the tests are eliminated, the importance of that curriculum decreases. State accreditation will no longer be based on those classes. Therefore, the focus in schools will shift away from those courses. School administrators will focus entirely on Math and Reading. Resources will go toward Math and Reading. In a time when school budgets continue to shrink and there is less money available for field trips, why would a principal authorize a field trip to your museum if there is no impact on student achievement scores?

Before you decide to support elimination of tests in Social Studies, you should probably check your records from the last few years to see how many school age children visit your museum. If part of your funding stream involves field trips, you may want to have a contingency plan in place. If your museum is focused on school age children, you should be concerned. I suspect you will see far fewer class trips.

Book Review: Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures

Review: Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman, Crown Publishing: 2010.

Priceless opens with an undercover art sting in Miami Beach, complete with a yacht, a Rolls Royce, and two French henchmen from the European art underworld.  This is the first glimpse we get of our protagonist, Robert Wittman, in this sting known better as Bob Clay, and the only thing odd about this Miami Vice-inspired scene is that it is a true story. Wittman, founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team and senior investigator for the Bureau until his retirement in 2008, has some great stories to tell from his many years investigating art crimes.  He lays them all out for the reader like a holiday feast, and even includes some tantalizing hints about the most famous art heist of recent history, the Isabella Stewart Gardner theft in 1990. Wittman relays these stories in a bit of an unpracticed voice that is more beat cop than storyteller, but the reader can’t help but be intrigued and caught up in this view into a world we never see.... Read our full book review in the upcoming Spring 2014 VAM Voice member news magazine. 

Interested in hearing more about the FBI art crimes unit?  Don’t miss the Keynote Presentation at the 2014 Annual Conference, where our speaker will be Gregg Horner.  Horner is a current member of the FBI art crimes squad, and will share some of his experiences with our attendees on Tuesday, March 18th.  He will also be a part of a session later that morning on theft in museums.  

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

By Popular Demand: Your Selections, Your Gallery - A Crowdsourced Exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art

Special thanks to Cheryl S. White, Curatorial Coordinator, Chrysler Museum of Art, for authoring this blog post for us!

It has been just over a year since I’ve been able to sneak out of my office during the Friday-afternoon lull and wander around the galleries. This was one of the perks of working at the Chrysler Museum of Art, but since our building is closed for the first major renovation in nearly 30 years, I find myself getting nostalgic about the art. At first I didn’t notice it much. I saw works moving from galleries to storage, being prepped for loans to local venues, or having behind-the-scenes conservation treatments. It almost felt like nothing had changed—until the first day I donned a hard hat and found myself walking through half-demolished galleries with exposed ceilings and not a work of art in sight. My heart ached a bit. 

Tiffany Studios (American, 1902–1932)
Spider and Web Electric Lamp 
with Mushroom Lamp Base, ca. 1910
Leaded glass and bronze
Gift of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. 
But then something beautiful happened…. I began to imagine the freshly painted walls glowing under state-of-the-art LED lights. I attempted to scale out the placement of paintings and pedestals based on our most recent floor plans. I walked into brand new galleries and the possibilities flooded my aching heart with excitement. All this new space was just waiting to be filled with all the art I had been missing for so long.

As the Curatorial Coordinator, I am lucky. I’ve had a front row seat to the process of selecting which works will be on display when we reopen on May 10, 2014. I scaled works of art to fit three-dimensional gallery models and cut and pasted tiny versions of Renoir and Veronese paintings until my hand cramped and glue sticks dried out. I tracked selections on spreadsheets and in databases as curators, conservators, and educators debated countless rounds of designs until the final plans emerged. And I’ll tell you a secret, they are nothing short of stunning. 

But, what about the works of art that just wouldn’t fit? The ones battled for, but ultimately cut? Those beloved works that the public seek out during repeated visits? Works that due to size or display limitations of the medium could not be included in this first round of installation? Aren’t these works of art equally worthy of display? 

These are just some of the questions that I, as a member of the Museum’s Community Conversations Committee, have been pondering. Comprised of 10 staff members, this group is dedicated to engaging the public in new and creative ways. In preparation of the Museum’s reopening we have vetted designs for new in-gallery response stations and have plans to launch a website where the public can upload their Chrysler memories. But, ultimately the Committee was responsible for determining the first exhibition in the Chrysler’s new Waitzer Community Gallery.  And while it would have been easy to curate a show ourselves, we saw this gallery as the perfect venue for a genuine community conversation.  Why not ask our community— who unknowingly have guided so many of our decisions this past year—to weigh in on some of those remaining, tougher-than-one-may-think art choices?

Thomas Hill (American, 1829–1908)
Early Morning, Yosemite Valley, 1884
Oil on canvas
Gift of Mr. Edward J. Brickhouse 
And again something beautiful happened: By Popular Demand: Your Selections, Your Gallery, a crowd-sourced exhibition drawn from nearly 40 works of art not slated for installation in our permanent galleries. Selections ranging from Tiffany Lamps to Warhol prints are up for election on the Museum’s website ( Visitors can vote daily for up to 10 works and even provide us feedback on their choices. We envisioned this to be more than a popularity contest. It is an opportunity for our public to truly take the reins. We want to know how our community will curate. What interesting juxtapositions they will create? What will they find worthy of display?  Are seascapes preferred over cityscapes? Paintings over photographs? Will local artists triumph over Renaissance masterworks?  The top selections will be on view for our grand reopening on May 10, 2014. 

As an art-loving member of the community, I invite you to vote. I do regularly. And perhaps on a Friday afternoon in late May, I’ll bump into you in the Waitzer Community Gallery and you can tell me all about the works you voted to include!   

Choose your favorites for By Popular Demand at Online voting ends February 26, 2014.

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Visit to Sites in Farmville and Appomatox

by Jennifer Thomas
It is funny how little time we have as museum professionals to actually visit museums!  That’s why Christina and I were so grateful to be able to take a day out of the VAM office earlier this week and make our way to two member museums to see how they are doing.

Our first stop was the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville.  The museum is housed in a 1938 African American high school, one that was distressingly overcrowded the day that the entire student body went on strike in 1951 and began their trek toward being among the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education.  The school is an emotional space in its own right, but the new permanent exhibition (designed by VAM business member StudioAmmons, Inc.)  brings the amazing story of these students to life in such an evocative way.  I loved how the exhibition incorporated the original blackboards and classroom elements to help tell the story:

Our second stop of the day was the Museum of the Confederacy in Appomattox.  Opened just last year, the building in Appomattox was designed to better showcase some of the key artifacts from the Museum’s collection that relate to the final battles of the Civil War and Lee’s surrender.  The exhibit space, here, too, was very well done, with signature artifacts complemented by both low-tech interactive elements and high tech touch screens.  I was impressed at the care that was taken to make this history personal—all of the uniforms on display were tied to a specific person, whose photo and story were shown as well.  The museum isn’t about the battles of the war, but instead about the emotion and strategy that existed in the days immediately leading to the surrender, and what happened to the citizens and soldiers of the former Confederacy after the war.  The design and installation here were also done by VAM business members (Riggs Ward Design, and Explus, Inc.). 

This graphic illustrated the migrations of former soldiers and slaves that happened after the end of the war.

Though it never occurred to me that visits to these two disparate sites could complement each other, that is in the end exactly what happened.  Both exhibitions focused so much on the voices of the main figures involved that you could hear the same language repeated across generations.  The words of the white segregationists who fought Brown v. Board of Education eerily echoed those of the Confederate politicians and soldiers from the Civil War.  Both spoke passionately of states’ rights, and freedom, and the potential damage to their way of life.   Both also brought to mind some of the statements made by Tea Party politicians today.   If two short museum visits can enlighten someone who has been in the history field for over 15 years, imagine what they could do for the general public! 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Art & Commerce in the History City

Photo courtesy of Visit Savannah Facebook and @telfair on Twitter 
The annual Southeastern Museum Conference took place last week in the historically pertinent city of Savannah, Georgia and this year’s presentations, discussions, and events did not disappoint.  While I lean toward collection or exhibition-centric presentations, I heard from many other attendees that all were insightful and they have seen ways they could implement those ideas at their particular site or museum.  

For me, I particularly enjoyed hearing about how two art museums and a history museum used their quirky collection items and curated interesting and well attended exhibits for their community.  Two examples that really stuck out were an art museum used an overall theme of using 18th century William Hogarth prints as a “Where’s Waldo.”  To do this they picked several items from each print and found those in their collection for a case and the visitor needed to find them in the original work.  The other was a history museum, the curator was also teaching a museum college class, contacted many museums a certain distance away from them and asked for their weirdest or most different piece in their collection.  With all of those loaned items, they curated an exhibit that was interesting on fact of it made one consider how each organization decides what collecting policy was in place.  

I, myself, am going to try and use these and some of the other examples discussed in my own exhibit cases on a smaller scale.  When I consider ideas for exhibits at my institution, I like to display the neat objects but still throw a learning aspect into the display for my audience.  Whether it is through the normal short text panel or Fun Facts, the ideas mentioned in the presentation sparked interest in doing some new ways of exhibiting objects.  Everyone has those items stored at their institution that they do not really know what to do with, and these are just a few solutions.
The evening events were equally entertaining because this is the best time for all conference goers to gather at different museums around Savannah, see the building and artifacts, have a snack and hop on the trolley and move to the next site on the route.  I started at the Owens-Thomas House, an early 19th century home built in the finest English Regency style.  From there moving to the Telfair Academy to see the famed Bird Girl statue and finally ending up at the Jepson Center to see some of the Telfair’s contemporary holdings.

All in all, the SEMC annual event was well worth attending, and I hope to go again to see and meet others museum professionals from all over the southeast.  In the meantime, I will use the information and ideas I was presented with and put them into practice at my own workplace. 

Ainsley Powell
Assistant Librarian and Archivist
Saint Mary’s School, Raleigh, NC

Monday, September 9, 2013

Why Should You Support VAM's Circuit Riders During the Amazing Raise?

Have you heard? It’s time for the Amazing Raise! Your donations will all go to VAM’s Circuit Riders program. I can’t encourage you enough to help support this program that has proven so valuable to many of Virginia’s small museums.

The Circuit Riders program provides a half-day site visit from a curator and an archivist who look at the basic collections care and management needs of the museum. The site visit is followed by a brief report that includes suggestions for site-specific actions along with resources to help the museum practicably accomplish them. The atmosphere is informal, with questions and interchange throughout the visit.

Targeted for very small museums, especially those with small or all-volunteer staffs, the Circuit Riders is proving to be an effective way for them to get a lot of individualized help from a small investment (VAM funds the Circuit Rider visits, which are free to VAM museums). Sites get valuable feedback and suggestions for improving basic collections care and management at their own particular institution. Sometimes they need help with where to begin to get their collections on track, often they just need help deciding what steps to take in what order. They have the opportunity to discuss their own specific issues in a one-on-one collegial setting. As an outside consultation by experts in the museum field, Circuit Riders has also served as a means to engage board members and to help support grant applications.

It’s been really gratifying to hear what folks have been able to accomplish as a result of the CR visit. We’ve heard from museums that were inspired to start making changes as soon as we drove away, who asked for (and got!) funding for supplies we recommended, or who finally got management to give them what they needed to move forward.

To date VAM has helped over 30 small museums in VA through the Circuit Riders program. More folks like these need your help! Your support will help ensure it continues. Please visit VAM's donate page any time to donate to Circuit Riders. That page will redirect to the Amazing Raise donation interface on September 18th and 19th. Thanks for your support of the Circuit Riders!