Michigan State University

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Re-woven Journeys: Improvisation and the Spirit of “Accreditation”

In his April 2019 letter, MSU Museum Director Mark Auslander reflects on the Museum’s recent re-accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums. In a formal sense, accreditation demands detailed planning and a demonstrated ability to implement a long-term “road map.” Yet, for a university museum the spirit of accreditation, that is to say earning credit and credibility, implies the capacity to earn trust again and again, especially from those who might have little reason to trust us. This depends, from time to time, on heading off the beaten track, responding nimbly to changing circumstances though novel, flexible, and emergent approaches.

We recently received the welcome news that the MSU Museum has been officially “reaccredited” by the Accreditation Commission of the American Alliance of Museums, the nation’s pre-eminent museum professional organization. The process has been a rigorous one, examining everything from our collections management and research mission to our physical plant and governance structure. The Commission carefully reviewed our new strategic plan, which lays out a detailed blueprint for integrating the study of science and culture, while prioritizing our core responsibility to furthering MSU students’ education. All told, the full re-accreditation process has taken the Museum team two years of sustained self-examination and focused planning. (We are delighted that we won’t need to submit our next “self-study” report, the first step in the ten year re-accreditation cycle, until March 2028!)

Yet for all the careful (and necessary) strategizing and planning, it has occurred to us that the real spirit of an “accredited” museum team is its willingness and capacity to respond to the unanticipated, to improvise on short notice and seize unexpected opportunities.

Natural Wonders

Fortunately, many of our unexpected moments in the Museum are sources of sheer delight. Our vertebrate collections manager Laura Abraczinskas shares that in 1976, our former curator of vertebrate paleontology, J. Alan Holman and combined field parties from MSU and the University of Nebraska State Museum, excavated a large fossil land tortoise, from the Miocene Epoch. The tortoise is believed to have lived between 16 and 14 million years ago. At the time of excavation, it was thought that only the shell had been recovered, but when the fossil was brought to campus and unwrapped, it was discovered that the entire skeleton had been preserved within the shell. Unexpectedly, the team learned that the animal had a long tail with pairs of spikes and a club at the end instead of a typical small tail with a pointy end, and a rather bizarre, tiny head compared to the size of the body.

In turn, our ornithology curator Pam Rasmussen reports that CT-scanning of our passenger pigeon taxidermy specimen has revealed a complete, intact skeleton inside one of the mounts, a rare finding that helps us better understand this extinct species, which once filled the skies over Michigan.

Our curators are always attuned to the unexpected. Our current paleontology curator Mike Gottfried recalls that a decade ago a woman brought in to our annual Darwin Discoverytooth in a rock Day a worn limestone nodule that she’d picked up on a beach near Petoskey, Michigan, in 1998. The nodule had cracked open, and inside it Mike discerned a beautifully preserved large tooth, about 400 million years old, of a relatively rare group of fossil fishes called onychodonts, dating to the Devonian period, sometimes termed “the age of the fishes.” Several years later, the woman generously donated the specimen to the MSU Museum. We are delighted that it is now the subject of an independent study research project by one of Mike’s undergraduate students, Lynnea Jackson, who will present a poster on her findings at MSU’s upcoming undergraduate research conference and co-publish a paper on the specimen with Mike. We never know just what will walk in our doors!

Climate Conversations

Sometimes, unanticipated developments require wholesale rethinking of a museum’s mission. The most substantial “course correction” for natural science museums the world over has been contemplating how we should best respond to accelerating global climate change. We have become increasingly aware that in the era of the “Anthropocene,” in which humanity is increasingly reshaping our planetary environment and biosystems, the very survival of our species will depend on the unprecedented rapid integration of diverse fields of science, technology, the social sciences, and humanities, as we must nimbly restructure and coordinate local and worldwide social and cultural institutions. Museums need to do more than just sound terrifying alarm bells; we have vital roles to play in helping young people imagine new creative paths forward, actively embracing some the greatest challenges in human history. Paradoxically, we need to help young people understand the urgent dangers posed to biodiversity and humanity, while inculcating a sense of “can do” optimism in the emerging generation.

At the MSU Museum, our response to the complex tableau of planetary climate change centers on “Science on a Sphere,” the dynamic learning technology platform that will be at the center of our re-imagined institution. In addition to projecting immersive visualizations created elsewhere, the Sphere will be a remarkable digital sandbox in which MSU students and our young community partners will collaborate with MSU faculty to plumb vast datasets to model changes in ocean temperature, rainfall, storm intensity, fresh water distribution, crop production, urban heat sinks, rain forest canopy, and hundreds of other variables. We know our young people thrive when designing and playing digital game-style simulations, rapidly and ingeniously responding to all manner of risk and crisis. We hope to help them become master navigators of the unexpected, rather like the youthful combatants celebrated in “Ender’s Game,” generating creative solutions that have escaped their elders. We can’t quite yet envision what they will create and map out on the Sphere, but we are confident they will come up with innovative strategies, enabling rapidly changing communities to adapt nimbly to scenarios we can scarcely yet imagine.

Of Nationalism and Nativism

Like most social scientists, I have been particularly puzzled of late by the intensifying growth of ethno-nationalism, chauvinistic impulses, and challenges to principles of liberal democracy, phenomena that seem to be related to the intersections of globalization, rising socioeconomic inequality, and environmental instability associated with climate change. The intensity of negative response to immigration in many deeply inter-connected societies has surprised us. It is vital that museums help give our stakeholders here in North America the tools to think intelligently to the long term causes of population movement and anti-democratic forces across our entire hemisphere.

ArpilleraFor this reason, the Broad Art Museum and the MSU Museum are collaborating to curate, quite rapidly, two parallel exhibits exploring challenges to democracy and social cohesion in Latin America, dynamics that arguably drive substantial migration northwards. The MSU Museum opens on May 28, “Between Absence and Presence: The Arpilleras Movement in Chile,” showcasing striking burlap appliqués created by low-income women under the Pinochet dictatorship and now being produced to protest economic austerity and environmental crisis. The Broad opens on June 1, “The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes,” highlighting cultural production in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil from the 1960s through the 1980s. Together, our two institutions will help our visitors engage with remarkable works of art that ask profound questions: When are democracy and civil society most vulnerable? How, in turn, might fraying bonds of the social compact be nurtured or restored, even at moments of crisis?

On Friday morning, March 15, we awoke to find ourselves faced with the latest heart-breaking twist in what sometimes seems to be a global tsunami of intolerance, the brutal terrorist murder of 50 people of Muslim faith in Christchurch, New Zealand. Consulting with our friends in the Muslim Studies Program and the East Lansing Islamic Center, the MSU Museum staff quickly reviewed our collections in Islamic material culture. We worked together within hours to create a modest but meaningful memorial installation, centered on three of our beautiful Islamic prayer rugs. These were installed in our atrium, surrounded by white ribbon evoking the color of mourning in many Muslim societies. The prayer rugs were mute testimony that the massacre’s victims at both mosques were attacked as they gathered for their weekly congregational devotions. The empty rugs made present the aching absence of those were so cruelly taken from us. Over sixty people gathered that afternoon to grieve together and take a measure of solace from our shared resolution, as voiced by our Director of Muslim Studies Mohammad Khalil, that the forces of love and compassion are ultimately greater than those of hate. At such moments, we are reminded why cultural museums, safeguarding the diverse material treasures of the human imagination, are more necessary than ever: museums help us, at our most awful and unanticipated moments, to light a candle against the darkness.

A Changing Tapestry

In recent months, the Museum’s greatest unanticipated challenge has been engaging with the aftermath of the horrific crimes perpetrated by Larry Nassar, compounded, as we learn each day, by failures of institutional accountability. It has been enormously moving to work with the sister survivors, their parents, and allies, who serve as community co-curators developing the exhibition, “Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak,” which opens on April 16. There really is no “rule book,” for this kind of project, which demands continual compromise and improvisation from everyone concerned. We constantly learn from one another as we repair the bonds among us in the wake of betrayal and shattered trust and navigate through unanticipated terrains of pain and hope.

Our final “Transformations” gallery will feature a striking sequence of three tapestry panels, titled “Emergence,” created on the loom of survivor artist Elena Cram. Elena had initially envisioned a three part sequence of a growing tree, but in the experimental spirit of this entire project she found, as she wove, that the work changed into a more abstract form. Read from left to right, each panel grows a little longer. Each has a dark teal zone at its base and then brightens towards the top into yellow and oranges tones, a bright pattern that grows larger in each panel. The effect, to my mind at least, is of dawn breaking after a long night, flooding the world with light and life-giving warmth.

Gazing at Elena’s three part work I find myself thinking of one of the most famous scenes of weaving in literature, Penelope at her loom in Homer’s the Odyssey, as she awaits the return of her long lost husband Odysseus. During the day, she weaves a funeral shroud for her late father in law, promising the clamoring (and increasingly dangerous) suitors that as soon as she completes the piece she will choose one of them in marriage. Each night, in secret, she unwinds the threads, seeking to buy her beloved a little more time to find his way home. In pondering Elena’s sunrise, I find myself thinking of Penelope, after her long night of work, waiting to discover what the new day will bring.

As I read the poem, Penelope is not simply engaging in a subterfuge as she weaves, un-weaves, and re-weaves again and again: as her life conditions alter she needs to fashion new course corrections on the complex canvas of the loom, re-expressing through her weaving the new person she is becoming, as she increasingly functions as Queen of Ithaka in her own right. We are reminded that the word “text” and “textile” have the same root, and that for Homer and his contemporaries poetry and storytelling were often understood through metaphors of weaving. Bards and weavers reserve the right to fashion new directions in light of changing circumstances. Elena has, appropriately, presented for us in fabric form a “re-woven” episode of finding voice during her and her sisters’ long journey from darkness to light.

An Improvised Wall

Our most recent “uncharted” venture on the project revolved around the opening wall. The Survivors and Allies Council had initially envisioned 505 photographs of the known survivors, dating to the age when abuse first began. It soon became apparent, however, that it would be impossible to gather that many photographs in time for the opening; many survivors have chosen to remain anonymous “Jane Does,” and even many of those who have publicly disclosed their identifies find it emotionally difficult to search photographs that remind them of the trauma of their youth. We thus hit upon a compromise; survivors and allies would create 505 abstract painted tiles, all of them different, to honor the individual distinctiveness of each and every survivor. These painted tiles will be interspersed with black and white photographs printed on identically-sized tiles; as we receive more photographs, the painted tiles will be removed and given to survivors as keepsakes.

The workshops at which the tiles were created were filled with unexpected twists and turns. Exhibit designer Kelly Hansen hit upon a technique involving alcohol-based pigments that run and blend across the surface in ways that escape the full control of the creator. This made each tile rather an adventurous foray into the unknown, enjoyable for artists and non-artists alike. The full wall of hundreds of painted tiles intermixed with the photographs is staggering, conveying in a visceral fashion the magnitude of suffering, as well as the uniqueness of each sister survivor.

Teal Talks

Once the exhibition opens, we anticipate new journeys into the unexpected. Survivors and faculty from across campus will be invited to facilitate dialogues (“Teal Talks”) within the gallery for students, colleagues, and members of the public. Moral and political philosophers might ask visitors to share their thoughts about when and how one should speak out about injustice, even when facing widespread disbelief. Psychologists and clinicians might have members of a dialogue circle consider how we can repair ourselves after experiencing suffering, violence, or other wrongs.

Such dialogues will be open-ended and unscripted. Rather like the multi-color pigments running and blending across those hundreds of tiles, each talking circle will escape any individual’s full control. That, to our minds, is precisely as things should be. An “accredited” museum re-earns, every single day, the full faith and credit of our stakeholders, precisely when we allow un-regimented spaces for discovery, discussion, and civil debate to emerge and engage expanding circles of people, many of whom share with us precious objects of science, culture, and art. At the Museum we plan and strategize, sometimes for years in advance, so that, at the most crucial moments, we can step back and defer sharing our own opinions or direct guidance. At such special instants, our partners and visitors step to the fore, allowing their own voices to emerge in unanticipated ways. At the end of the day, that is the true spirit of the “accredited” museum: all of us should share in the drama of exploration and argumentation, collectively “crediting” one another with full respect and acknowledgement, as we journey together beyond charted seas, towards the new worlds that await us.