Friday, April 19, 2013

Keepers of the Eternal Flame

I was meant to be meditating.

I dutifully tried to focus my attention on the candle, watch the flame dance, and empty my mind.

It wasn't working.

Thinking About Fire
The ubiquitous Pittsburgh grey sky had opaqued the adjacent window just enough for the glass to become a mirror. Reflected there and superimposed on a bush was a twin to the dancing candle flame.

Now I've never been any good at traditional meditation, and I've never been bothered by that fact. I figure some minds are meant to keep perpetually busy and mine must be one of them. Only in moments of forced meditative stasis like this do I feel a twinge of inadequacy. But I'm tough and I refused to give into meditation-shaming. Instead of feeling bad about my inability to allow the lovely play of lights to focus my attention, produce sustained gamma-activity and transport me to some non-analytical dimension, I wondered if I ought to point out to my husband that the divine had maybe just made an appearance, old school burning bush-style.

It went reflectively tangential from there, with The Doors' "Light My Fire" inserting itself as my earworm du jour.

Thinking About Thinking About Fire

So I gave up and pondered the symbolism of flame, queuing up a mental homage that flickered rapid-fire through my brain. Fire: instrument of terror; harbinger of destruction; symbol of passion, chaos and war; one of the four classical elements. Prometheus! Yahweh in a burning bush! Flaming tongues of the Holy Spirit! Beavus and Butthead! Fire images fueling poetry, literature and visual arts. Scholarly exploration in the fields of anthropology focused on fire, and the December 2012 issue of Smithsonian Magazine with its fire theme.

I stumbled over that last one, recalling an article which densely explored the influence of fire on the evolution of the human mind, positing that our responses to fire helped "....endow us with capabilities such as long-term memory and problem-solving." I was still trying to wrap my brain around that much for long-term memory and problem-solving.

Truth is, perpetual fires have always fascinated me. The notion of attempting to keep flames burning ad infinitum goes back, uhm, ad infinitum. We know that the ancient Romans kept a holy perpetual fire cared for by Vestal Virgins. Leviticus 6:12 proscribed that "The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out."  Fire worshipers in Baku, Russia and India have preserved continuous flames in their temples for centuries.

My first exposure to the notion of eternal flaming came (no, not from the Internet) from the grave site
Source: Wikipedia Commons
of John F Kennedy. Like many women of a certain age and religious affiliation, the emotion my mother invested in JFK and Jackie was akin to her veneration of the saints. Thus it was that our first family vacation was to Washington DC, with a visit to Arlington National Cemetery a priority. Fading Polaroids attest to the solemnity of this moment in 1969: my 2 year old brother and I, graveside, posed with our parents. We were all dressed in our Sunday best; even my brother was wearing a toddler-sized Fedora. 

We weren't the only ones who stopped by. According to various sources some 50,000 people visited per day in the year immediately following Kennedy's burial, and more than 16 million people in the first three years afterward, for a total of more than 7 million visitors by 1971. Count me in those totals.

I suppose my family visit was framed by whatever my parents told me about JFK's life and death, but what I chiefly remember from that day is the eternal flame. As an adult, I understand that nothing is forever and that even the most impressive "eternal" flames go out at some point. But to a four year old in a pre-Buzz Lightyear/"To infinity and beyond!" era, the notion of infinity was overwhelming. It was akin to the true nature of God and Santa (whose identities I often conflated). I imagined dire existential consequences should the flame ever be extinguished...and yet I couldn't resist puffing my cheeks and blowing in its general direction to tempt fate a wee bit. (For the record, flame kept burning).

With this fire stuff, I was a four year old Piagetian theory poster child,
generalizing old experience to new scenarios. Because, having witnessed a perpetual flame at JFK's grave, I assumed for a while that JFK was buried at any site where there was a large flame. Like, say, at the natural gas well we passed each week on the way to Grandma's house. I eventually sorted that out, but how we individually and collectively make sense of things has continued to fascinate me.

Imagine, for example, that you were suddenly confronted with a tower of flame shooting out of the ground. What would prepare you in, say, 1881, for dealing with that?  Because that's what residents of Western Pennsylvania faced back in the day.

The Murrysville Freak

The existence of pockets of natural gas in these parts had been documented since the first European explorers began poking about the Ohio River watershed. Artesian drillers often found natural gas along with petroleum when digging for wells. Early on, these substances were regarded as curiosities and nuisances rather than treasures, especially ground-based gas which was impossible to control. But by the 1820s new techniques had developed to harness energy from the bowels of the earth. When Josh Cooper of Murrysville, Westmoreland County was seen boiling a pot of maple syrup in his backyard over an invisible fuel source from the ground, fellow residents Michael and Obadiah Haymaker suspected oil (not an unreasonable assumption, since both substances were often found together). The Haymakers began drilling on real estate on the banks of Turtle Creek. What they struck was something else: not the coveted oil, but a productive vein of natural gas.

Really, really productive. On 3 November 3 1878 after drilling to a depth of 1,400 feet, the earth ominously rumbled. An enormous stream of natural gas exploded and blew the rigging a hundred feet into the air. As Michael Rugh Haymaker later described the event in his memoirs:
I'll never forget the day the well came in. We were down 1400 feet. Without the slightest warning, there was a terrific roar and rumble that was heard fifteen miles away.
Every piece of rigging went sky high, whirling around like so much paper caught in a gust of wind.
But, instead of oil, we had struck gas. It was being shot out under such enormous pressure that it continued to shake the ground and roar for months, rattling windows for miles around. You can't imagine the production at such pressure; we figured the production at 30,000,000 cubic feet/day.
That well was as rich as any drilled. Gas was struck at 1400 feet and came from sand 150 feet thick. When the pressure would weaken a little, all we had to do was drill a bit deeper and the well would be as strong as ever, producing 30,000,000 cubic feet every 24 hours.
We weren't prepared for gas, so had no way of controlling it. It was something new, in our section of the country at least. Nobody knew how to stop it. But it had to be stopped and we tried all kinds of devices.
Nothing worked. For years, the Haymaker well blasted natural gas into the air at a rate of 30 to 40 million cubic feet per day. That's a lot of gas, and a lot of noise, but at least it didn't smell. Natural gas is odorless; the smell we associate with it today is due to chemical additives from commercial processing. But somehow I doubt that the lack of odor was a selling point to residents in the area, who had to put up with this constant noisy stream. The Haymakers made the best of things, constructing a profitable lampblack works there to process the fine soot that was used in printers' ink. Their place also became quite the tourist attraction, nicknamed the "Murrysville Freak".

On the night of 18 September 18 1881 a sightseer's lantern accidentally ignited the gas jet. Voilà! Instant perpetual flame! The flames burned down the lampblack works and could be seen for miles. Haymaker again:
One night, a crowd with a few lanterns got too close. I recall a blinding flash. Perhaps there was an explosion. There must have been. My eardrums were ringing. It was a weird moment. Flames it seemed were everywhere. Over all there was one great flare, reaching high into the air. Then my ears cleared and I heard the familiar roar of the well.
I picked myself up. All over the ground others were picking themselves up. Some remained motionless. After we took stock, we found that there were no very serious injuries.
Gradually, the flame from the well mouth lowered until it settled to an even 100 feet straight up in the air.  The original blast had sent the flame hundreds of feet upward, and it was seen in Pittsburgh, 18 miles away.
It burned for a year and a half, burning thousands of dollars of potential earnings. All the time we were busy trying to extinguish it. That burning well attracted hundreds of people from all over the country. World travelers told me they had never seen a sight so magnificent. It gave us continuous daylight for miles around.
Harper's Weekly illustration of well blast

 The Hon. Daniel J. Ackerman summarized the aftermath in a 2013 article in Westmoreland History:
The flame at the well leveled to about 100 feet high and burned continuously for 18 months. Murrysville became famous as a place "where there was no night." Tourists came in earnest to view what was said to be "one of the greatest wonders of the day." Among them were President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, with the president calling it "an uncanny picture, a superb spectacle." A widely noted curiosity at the well was the presence of countless dead birds ringing the well, having perished by flying near the flame.

The energetic and persistent Haymakers were not content to allow their hard labor to rest with only a public spectacle and an avian abattoir to show for their efforts, so they undertook to cap the well. The methodology was, at best, primitive. They acquired an old 45-foot-long smokestack with which they intended to plug the blazing fountain. Guy wires were attached to the stack extending in every direction, held taut by a large labor gang moving toward the wellhead. Workers drenched themselves in the creek in an attempt to ward off the heat as they got the smokestack near the hole, and, with the leverage of the guy wires, pulled the stack upright.

To their astonishment, the fire went out. Or did it? During the operation, an oak tree nearly 300 feet away caught fire. Gas seeping through the ground reached the tree and ignited, burning back to the wellhead. In his written recounting of the event, Michael Haymaker tells us, "The smokestack snuffer came off and the fire was under way again. But we found a way to extinguish it and soon had the stack back over the hole once more." Unfortunately, he omits any details as to how the fire was ultimately put out.
Harper's Wkly: "View at the outbreak of the fire, showing some of the buildings which it destroyed.
Pennsylvania. - The explosion and burning of a natural gas well at Murraysville (sic).
Final extinguishment of the flames by the use of an immense
smokestack as a "snuffer." "
The trauma and drama of Murrysville's natural gas well continued even after its perpetual flame was extinguished, culminating in various lawsuits, riots, and the fatal stabbing of Obadiah Haymaker in 1883. I have to figure that with a name like that, he was going to come to a dramatic end. Brother Michael fared better, living to the ripe old age of 92.

Michael Haymaker 1845-1937, People's Natural Gas
By 1884, gas from the Murrysville well was being efficiently transported to Pittsburgh, marking the first time that natural gas was industrially transported to a large metropolitan city.

Westinghouse's Wells 

Murrysville wasn't the only out-of-control natural gas well hereabouts. George Westinghouse drilled four wells on the sprawling grounds of his Pittsburgh estate Solitude, which was located in Pittsburgh's East End between Thomas Boulevard and the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks.

Westinghouse residence "Solitude" c 1910
George and his wife Marguerite moved into a gracious circa-1860s home in March 1871, and over time gradually expanded both house and grounds. George added a laboratory to his stable and constructed an underground electrified tunnel to connect it all. He even added a tunnel to provide easy private access to the railroad at nearby Homewood Station.  

Westinghouse residence "Solitude" c 1910

George was an obsessive tinkerer. His forays into natural gas were driven by curiosity and a desire to familiarize himself with the latest technology.

George Westinghouse at work

He had of course visited the Haymaker gusher, which had become quite the tourist attraction. But this was no idle sight-seeing on George's part. An inspired and intrigued George Westinghouse contracted with Pittsburgh's Gillespie Tool Company in December 1883 to bore a well on his own property. For months afterwards, George's long-suffering neighbors put up with the activity of state-of-the art drilling machinery (such as it was back in the day) working at all hours of day and night. Two small pockets of gas were struck, but George thought there was much more to be found deeper in the ground.

He was right. 

In the middle of the night of 21 May 1884, the well that George sunk on his property hit...well, not quite pay dirt. A geyser of mud, gravel and water roared forth into the night sky with the force of the unearthed natural gas pocket, knocking aside the derrick and awakening all within earshot.

This story fills me with delight, because I can just imagine George's posh neighbors rushing out in their jammies to see what the hell he was up to. They were none too happy about things, as this excerpt from an article ten days later in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette illustrates:

I love that even George and Marguerite couldn't stand it, and contemplated moving with their baby son into a new home a couple blocks away!
The long-suffering Marguerite Westinghouse, c 1870
George Westinghouse Museum Collection

In the name of science, a hundred pound rock was lowered from the remains of the derrick to see what would happen. That didn't end well; such was the force of the geyser that the rock was casually tossed aside. For more than a week this "roarer" spewed forth until George finished tinkering with various apparatuses to control the flow. Finally his neighbors could get some sleep!

Fat chance. Ever the experimenter, George decided to test the illuminating power of natural gas. The late Pittsburgh historian Jamie Van Trump tells what happened next, in his own inimitable style:

He caused a pipe to be built up about sixty feet from the well mouth, to the top of which a wire rope on a pulley was attached. One evening at a given signal, a burning mass of oil-soaked rags was attached to the wire and hauled to the top of the pipe into which the full force of the gas had been admitted. When it reached the opening a thin bluish flame hovered there for an instant and then a great column of light shot a hundred feet into the night air. The base of the pillar of fire was blue, then white; at its top it expanded into a wide tubular fan which displayed shades of yellow and orange and a sort of dull Indian red. The East Liberty valley was bathed in an almost diurnal radiance and nearly a mile away people were able to read newspapers by the light of the great jet of flame. The Children of Israel in the Wilderness were not more splendidly illuminated than the company who watched from the lawns of Solitude. Westinghouse gave several of these evening performances for friends, neighbors and visiting manufacturers. The heat generated by the flame was in summer intense; if the night was windy there was danger of fire; the roaring noise of the escaping gas again made sleep impossible; and so these feasts of light ceased to be either feasible or attractive.
Well, for the neighbors, anyway. George was having so much fun that he had at least three other wells bored on his property. None of them amounted to much in terms of natural gas yield, but they spurred a brief mania for drilling in the East End and inspired Westinghouse's research into safely harnessing and delivering natural gas into homes for consumer use. Over time he patented more than 30 inventions intended to distribute, safely use and meter natural gas. His work was instrumental in expanding the availability of natural gas as an energy source for consumers.

Two of George's wells at Solitude, c. 1884. From Pittsburgh and Allegheny Illustrated Review, 1889.

A Gassy Legacy 

While Westinghouse had the brains and the means to create technology to exploit new discoveries, others wanted a piece of the future, too. The company George formed eventually merged into today's Equitable Natural Gas. The owners of the Haymaker well ultimately formed Peoples Natural Gas Company. Scores of other wells were drilled in the region, including this one in the Monroeville area.

Well on property c. 1910. Monroeville Historical Society Collection, Historic Pittsburgh Image Collection

By 1886, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine declared that natural gas in Pittsburgh 
....already displaces over ten thousand tons of coal daily. Thus the character of that city will be completely transformed, and it will no longer be properly described as ‘the dirtiest city in America.’
“Outlet of a Natural Gas Well, Near Pittsburgh” Harper’s Weekly November 7, 1885.
Well, premature prediction, that. Historian John Boucher was more prescient when he noted in 1906 that
The reckless manner in which the gas was wasted soon brought about a diminution in the output, the popular opinion being at first that the supply was inexhaustible. Today the Murrysville field produces but little gas, and the supply for these places has been searched for and found in other localities.
But the little town of Murrysville hasn't forgotten its gassy, flaming past. Although the precise site of the original well has been lost to history, in October 1967 a bronze plaque and sandstone monument were erected in the vicinity at the edge of Turtle Creek. A house once stood there, and it is still private property. Local Boy Scouts later erected a mock rigging memorial.

Pennants bearing the outline of a derrick in the village of Murrysville and an official Pennsylvania state waymarker also commemorate the area's past.


The site of George Westinghouse's former estate Solitude got its own gassy state waymarker, which was unveiled in late 2016 at the edge of Westinghouse Park.

There's a cautionary tale here, of course, about the risks of playing with fire and unleashing what we can't control. Dealing with the power and potential of natural gas isn't part of Smokey Bear's environmental awareness campaign, but maybe it should be. (Random fun fact: I visited Smokey at his home in the National Zoo on that same fire-themed trip to Washington DC when I saw the JFK's graveside eternal flame).

Me and Smokey Bear, circa 1969

Natural gas has become a significant energy source for this country, but nothing is perfectly safe. Neither perpetual flames nor natural resources last forever. The fire that started in Murrysville more than 130 years ago and George Westinghouse's efforts to harness natural resources on his property are directly correlated to today's debates about the merits and disadvantages of hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking.

Sources and Further Reading
Ackerman, The Hon Daniel J. "The Killing of Obadiah Haymaker" Westmoreland History 17.3 (Winter 2012-2013): Pages 4-9.  Print.
Boucher, John N. History of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. The Lewis Publishing Company. New York, Chicago, 1906. Print.
Smith, Helene. Murrysville and Export. (Images of America) Arcadia Publishing. Charleston, SC, 2011. Print.
Van Trump, James. ""Solitude" and the Nether Depths: the Pittsburgh Estate of George Westinghouse and its Gas Well". The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine. 42. June 1959. Print.
Early Oil Region Men and the Peoples Natural Gas Co.
Natural Gas is King in 1880s Pittsburgh
Murrysville's Haymaker well site a font of local history
The Vision and Will to Succeed: The Centennial History of the People's Natural Gas Company
Westinghouse Memorial

Monday, April 8, 2013

Review: Paris to the Pyrenees by David Downie

Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Walks The Way of Saint James  by David Downie
My rating:  5 of 5 stars

My usual disclaimer: I'm not typically one to do written reviews. However, every once in a while I find I can't stop thinking about a book and need to comment on it. This is one of those times.

Knowing of my love (read: obsession) for narratives about pilgrimages along The Way, a friend recommended this book to me. I immediately discerned from the title that this wasn't the typical "Way" narrative, which usually starts somewhere on the edge of France, proceeds across the Pyrenees through Galicia, and ends at Santiago de Compestela. Downie and his photographer-wife Alison Harris instead fashioned a pilgrimage along Chemins de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, traveling from Paris to the Pyrenees. In so doing, they followed in the footsteps of countless medieval pilgrims who started on their "Way" from Paris, and simultaneously retraced the 'way' of the ancient Romans and peoples of Gaul before them.

Downie and Harris deliberately chose the roads that are today less traveled from Paris through rural France. They stopped their pilgrimage at the edge of the Pyrenees in Roncesvalles, which marks the traditional beginning for the modern-day Compestela pilgrim. Although the paths chosen by Downie and Harris may be less traditional for Compestela narratives, they are no less compelling.

I've often said that my personal goal in life is to ask intelligent questions. A leitmotif of Downie's lyrical prose is his quest to understand the nature of pilgrimage, which he sees as being less about finding the 'right' answers and more about discerning and framing the "infinity of questions."  With this philosophy, the paths chosen and even the ultimate destinations aren't what really matter; it's the journey that counts. And what a journey this is! Downie's musings range far and wide yet remain physically connected to his travel narrative. As he walks, he mentally meanders through such diverse topics as how to "visually embed" scenery to memory, the complexities and progression of French history over the millennia, connections between the Roman Empire and contemporary American culture, the relevance and preservation of architectural witnesses to history, and the appropriateness and irony of a secular intellectual following a religious pilgrimage route (an irony pithily summarized in the subtitle "A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks The Way of Saint James"). Harris' gorgeous photographs enhance the reader's journey with a different kind of visual embedding.

This is the kind of pilgrimage I want to make and the sort of book I'd want to write afterwards. Circumstances dictate that for now I must settle for the occasional armchair pilgrimage. Fortunately, rereading Paris to the Pyrenees will be a joyful literary journey, and I'm pleased to recommend this book to other readers. Thank you, David Downie, for taking us along on your way.

Also posted to Goodreads.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Building a Museum

Spring has been a long time in coming, so I decided that if I couldn't be greeted with cheery weather I'd ring in the season with Billy Bragg's new CD Tooth & Nail. Bragg is my favorite singer-songwriter; he drew me in with his political and social commentary in the late 1980s and I hung 
around for the love songs despite my anti-romantic streak. His first new release in five years is rich with personal reflections, patented wordplay, and that distinctive Bragg sound. He even gets a bit of whistling in. Of course, whistling makes everything better, especially when the Sherpa of Heartbreak pairs it with lyrics like "To the misanthropic, misbegotten merchants of gloom...."

With no slight intended to Billy's musicianship, I have to admit that ear-worms from this release have taken a temporary backseat for me to the essays he included with the deluxe CD. From 2008-2011, Bragg wrote a regular column for Q, a monthly music magazine published in the UK. His topics were free-ranging and all-encompassing (kind of like this blog, heh) and he's reprinted some of his favorites with this release. This line from the essay "Compiling a Discography" grabbed me:
As we grow older, each of us become curators of our own personal museum, full of items of no great financial value, yet cherished all the same. 
So there, we have Billy Bragg to blame for my latest flight of fancy: I've been mentally building my own personal museum. Mmm, okay, it's not Billy Bragg's fault. I'll admit that 'museum curator' has always been high on Sue's List of 427 Alternate Fantasy Career Choices. This is a natural extension of my grade school obsession of wanting to live in a museum, which we can blame on EL Konigsburg's novel From the Mixed-up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler.   Juvenile fantasies aside (uhm, okay, I still want to live in a museum....) I harbor no illusions that curating is an easy task. It is a multi-layered profession which places physical and/or digital objects at the mercy of a idealized balance of subjective judgement and specialist knowledge and skill.

Bragg's personal museum, referenced above in the context of compiling a discography for a website relaunch, would be more culturally relevant on a global scale than the personal museums most of us would compile. I mean, no one but me would likely appreciate the items I'd include in my collection. Things like, say, my beloved childhood companion, Chester O'Chimp.

Chester O'Chimp

Me and Chester
Chester's a little tatty around the edges but don't mock his appearance; he's looking good for a 45 year old talking plushy. Although he debuted in 1964 as part of a Mattel line of talking plushies called Animal Yackers, I got Chester as a birthday present a few years later when I turned three (he was probably on clearance). He's a furry 14 inches tall and when you pull his string, his mouth moves as he utters bon mots with an Irish accent. Yes, really. He says profound stuff like "Ah it's marvelous, 'tis, how we look so much alike" and "I'll be a monkey's uncle! Oh...I am."  For a chimpanzee with an Irish accent, Chester O'Chimp possesses a deadpan sense of humor and great comedic timing. I'm sure consorting with him during tender, formative years helped hone my refined sense of the absurd (because if a chimpanzee with an Irish accent isn't absurd, I don't know what is).

Somewhere along the way my Chester lost his trademark vest, which means he can no longer command $400 collector price tags on eBay. That's okay by me, as he's not for sale. Chester watches over me from his vantage point above my Star Trek memorabilia shelf.

Oh of course, yes, my Star Trek stuff would be included in the Museum of Sue. I have an original Enterprise play set somewhere, too. Mr. Spock was my philosophical godparent and I've been a fan of the original series since the age of 9. My own 9 year old son seems to have inherited my love of things Trek. My daughter is battling the emotional assault of adolescence and currently has a toxic aversion to Mr. Spock (but he loves her anyway, and so do I).

When it comes to sifting through childhood memorabilia, there's an assortment of well-loved dolls and paper doll books that I'd need to include in my museum. And I'll admit that I'm still a doll lover, though these days my doll play is characterized by creating elaborate realistic dioramas in 1:3 scale. That means mon musée is going to need some fancy display cases with professional lighting to showcase my collections, which is going to stretch the exhibitory budget. So since I'm blowing the budget on display cabinets, the rest of my personal museum will need to be a digital archive using existing share-ware. That means visitors to the Museum of Sue will need to BYOi (bring your own iPad) to access the library, photos, and soundtracks of my life. There will be an optional olfactory component, too, because I buy a new scent whenever I'm traveling to a special place since wearing the scent later evokes happy associations. That's right, the Museum of Sue will be a total sensory immersion experience.

The Cabildo, upper gallery overlooking Jackson Square
So much for what's in the museum; the next step is deciding where to house it. My favorite museums are in buildings that are architectural witnesses to history, because that adds another dimension to the experience. The Louvre and Cluny in Paris and The Cabildo in New Orleans are inspiring examples of museums in buildings re-purposed from their former usage.

Musée de Cluny, by John Phillips

There are fine purposefully-built museums, too. My favorites are those that are an architectural homage to the past, ranging from neo-classical to High Gothic stylings like at The Met, National Gallery in DC, British Museum, and the V&A. The museums of the 19th century have been subsequently expanded piecemeal and thus bear the imprint of multiple tastes and styles, but that adds to their charm. My hometown Carnegie Museum of Natural History is an imposing structure that's as interesting as the stuff it houses. Andrew Carnegie had four statues crafted for the entrance to his namesake Museum and adjacent Music Hall to symbolize what he called "The Noble Quartet" of Science, Art, Music, and Literature. I admit, I still feel humbled at the sight of Galileo, Michelangelo, Bach, and Shakespeare staring down at Forbes Avenue from their lofty pedestals.

Sculpture of Shakespeare by John Massey Rhind

The Museum of Sue needs a home, but since I've blown my imaginary budget I can't afford statuary. I'll have to settle for my parents' 1950s suburban ranch house, which is as iconic as I can get. Maybe I can scrounge up a gazing ball on a pedestal to put outside the front door.

It's fun to mentally while away the hours curating an imaginary museum. But I know that the real challenge is to get people to come through a museum's doors, tarry a while in real time, and maybe even come back. I spent a few years as the accidental managing director of a semi-pro theatre company and thereby learned the hard way about the challenges of marketing to and growing an appreciative audience. I spend a lot of time in museums now as a parent and self-avowed culture vulture. While I believe that there is charm to all of them, certain things seem to 'work' better in terms of audience appeal in today's technical age.

For instance, I recently had the experience of visiting a city museum in an historically signifcant building with some friends. This was a repeat visit for me so I was able to gravitate to my favorite sections, but it was new to them and they soon wearied due to information overload. That was as much about the presentation as it was volume of info. As we later reflected upon the experience, we agreed that a very high standard of literacy and a strong inclination toward detail-oriented cultural and historical immersion was presumed of this site's visitors. I'm not sure that expectation is in the best interest of a museum. I'm not suggesting dumbing down history, and certainly anyone who enters a history museum is there because she wants to (or in the case of a forced field trip, is expected to) learn. But surely something that blends the resources available to us today to make info more accessible is to everyone's benefit? Expecting people to read an endless parade of placards with details in fine print isn't realistic these days.

This museum featured a short video clip showcasing the early colonial history of its city, which I thought was interesting and well-done. But the screen was off to the side in a crowded room that most people breezed through, so it got little attention. And for those of us who wanted to watch, there was but one hard little bench. It wasn't a very inviting scenario. To its credit, the museum did offer guided audio-tours that hit some of the tour highlights. That kind of interface is pretty much expected of museums, although it's rapidly becoming low-tech in the struggle to keep apace with relevant technological advances.

Museum professionals are engaged in constant critical examination of the potential uses of technology in their field. The 2011 Horizon Report had as its goal an examination of "...emerging technologies for their potential impact on and use in education and interpretation within the museum environment." The Horizon Report acknowledged that today's patrons "....expect museums to provide a wide range of digital resources and content...." and that multi-media presentations "....are no longer seen as afterthoughts in interpretation but increasingly as necessary components of an interpretive plan." Of course not all museum funding is created equal so this multi-media trend is not to be found across all facilities; monies have to be found for basics like, say, modifying old buildings for high speed WiFi connections. I'm afraid in the city museum I described above, technology was an afterthought, but at least the video was well-done. Sometimes when technology is showcased it ends being well-intentioned but poorly executed. I've seen complementary multi-media presentations that were redundant to the main exhibit and did nothing to enhance the collection, and some which even distracted. Having technology simply for the sake of having technology isn't the way to go, either. To paraphrase James Carville, it's about the integration, stupid.

The Horizon Report asserted that mobile apps for iOS or Andoid based devices to enhance museum-going experiences are what museums need to be offering now. Future recommendations include the development of "augmented reality" technologies which use combinations of GPS, video, and pattern recognition to "....extend the museum and its mission beyond its physical setting." I love some of the applications of this technology: x-rays showing the layers of sketches or preparatory drawings beneath a completed painting, or video feed of what a landscape once looked like overlaid by its present reality, accompanied by historical tid-bits. The latter is my obsession when visiting any historical site: I want to see the layers of history in order to witness and analyze the architecture and social progression over time. I've used a couple of augmented reality apps when traveling and found them, though usually still in their early stages of development, a fun way of enhancing historical learning.  I've also spent a lot of time on the augmented reality viewer for the Western PA region, the Pittsburgh Mapping and Historical Site Viewer, developed as a labor of love and genius by Chris Owens to show how how Pittsburgh evolved from 1835 to the present day. And I'm looking forward to using the Museum of London's Streetmuseum app later this year. This app allows users to point their mobile devices at historical sites and see the feed from their cameras overlaid with historical notes and archival photos about what they are viewing. The technology literally allows the user to visualize past superimposed on present. For an historical geek weaned on Star Trek technology, augmented reality is a fantasy come true!

Museum experiences enhanced by creative curating range from the use of costumed interpreters to interactive high tech multi-media additions, but it's definitely all about finding a balance. For instance, I've seen costumed interpreters who were so rigidly wedded to their roles that they couldn't break character even in the face of obvious patron discomfort, and some who even harangued their audience for not playing along. I don't think alienating and weirding out patrons serves any useful purpose. Those actions certainly doesn't help to engage patrons or facilitate teaching history, although perhaps lessons on how to avoid rigid character actors may be learned!

Hanna's Town characters, summer court session 2012
I truly treasure the creative museum exhibits I've seen. When it comes to costumed interpreters, the volunteers and staff at Hanna's Town, a reconstructed historical town which
served as the county seat of colonial Westmoreland County, strike an excellent balance. They can talk knowledgeably and engagingly about the characters they represent, and segue seamlessly into 'being' those people when the patron's willingness to engage at that level is assessed.

My daughter and I had fun last summer ogling colonial garb in the "Fashions from Head to Toe" exhibit at the Textile Gallery of the Dewitt-Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia. The artifact display was enhanced by a video showing how the ensembles and accessories were put together, and we were able to look at more images in the online gallery and view an overview video at our leisure when we got home.   It was a great combination of technology and real objects.

Using technology for crowdsourcing participation can be fun, too. Locally, the Carnegie Museum of Art's current Oh Snap! collaborative photography project allows visitors inspired by specific works in the current collection the opportunity to share their own work in online and designated galleries. I've submitted a couple of pictures and my son was inspired as well. I loved that he was enthused about looking at art and taking his own pictures as we toured the museum. It reinforced what Jake Barton, founder of a media design firm for museums and public spaces called Local Projects, recently stated: "People learn more if they're learning in directly engaging ways."

Another great use of technology can be found at From Slavery to Freedom, a long-term exhibit of the Heinz History Center. One enters the exhibit through the recreation of a slave ship hold, complete with sounds and poignantly rendered life casts.

Artifacts such as a 4-pronged neck collar restraint from Ghana and child-sized shackles are on display, and one can pause to listen to a speech by abolitionist Martin R. Delany. About two-thirds of the way through the exhibit is a touch-screen display created by Jon Amakawa that presents some prominent local stops on the Underground Railroad.

This YouTube video by user chico72 highlights some of the interactions:

(The link is HERE in case the embed doesn't show up). The touchscreen seems very popular with visitors, and I can attest to how mesmerizing it is. But it brings to mind how museums must carefully weigh their multi-media approaches to avoid the phenomenon of digital seduction, the process by which patrons are drawn to the screens instead of appreciating the historical objects around them. How easy it is to find one's back turned to an objet d'art in favor of watching a video showing how it was conserved, or to play with the interactive video versus reading genuine handwritten indenture and manumission documents from 19th century Pittsburgh.

There are those who have grave reservations about what is happening with museums and technology. Cultural critic-at-large for The New York Times Edward Rothstein posits that the proliferation of random patron cellphone photography by museum visitors can be reductionist and distancing: "The artwork, document or fossil is a tourist site; the photograph is our souvenir. And the looking -- for which museums were created -- becomes a memory before it has even begun." Rothstein tentatively applauded the use of museum apps that help patrons navigate collections, citing them as useful in providing a frame of reference for a collection. But he urged caution lest such guides distract attention with a reliance on "minimalist text bites." He also decried institutional programs that allow the tagging, voting, or 'liking' of artifacts as a kind of museum popularity contest that is ultimately "unilluminating....The result is a kind of scarcely literate cybergraffiti that does nothing to help reach a deeper understanding of the works or reveal their artistic traditions or cultural significance. The museum becomes a smorgasbord of objects, their importance a mystery."

Rothstein raises interesting points, but I can also see how 'liking' allows the casual museum-goer to feel more connected to the items she is viewing. Likewise, being able to scan a bar code with your cell phone's QR reader or use some other smart object technology to get more information about an object has definite advantages. Maintaining an extremity of opinion decrying the use of such technologies in favor of a solely passive museum experience is to flirt with a certain type of snobbery that benefits no one. As Nancy Proctor, head of mobile strategy and initiatives at the Smithsonian, noted: "For visitors, holding up their camera to scan an object of interest is a natural gesture — the same action as taking a photo. If that gesture triggers delivery of content to better understand something, it is a better, more organic experience."

When Arianna Huffington was asked to speak to a group of professionals in the field about using social media tools to enhance the museum-going experience, she framed the question as how best to use social media to support a presumed museum mission of inspiring "resonance and wonder" without "....undermining the essential art experience that allows us to connect with something larger than ourselves." As befits her role, Huffington is a huge advocate for incorporating new technology into existing mediums, but even she urged caution:
At their best, social media build community and enhance communication. In the case of museums, they can provide access to a much wider audience, and can extend the museum visit by allowing a user to continue the aesthetic experience after leaving the museum....But if museums forget their DNA and get their heads turned by every new tech hottie that shimmies by they will undercut the point of their existence. Too much of the wrong kind of connection can actually disconnect us from an aesthetic experience...It's great to see them taking advantage of new media tools to broaden access to the garden and increase the community around the garden. But we should never forget that while technologies will constantly change, the need to connect with great art never will.
Again, it seems to me the solution is all about carefully considered balance and integration. That's true even with the use of digital preservation as an archival tool. Keeping up with the advances in data storage is an on-going challenge for preservationists. The Horizon Report noted that "Digital preservation calls for a new type of conservationist with skills that span hardware technologies, file structures and formats, storage media, electronic processors and chips, and more, blending the training of an electrical engineer with the skills of an inventor and a computer scientist." I wish them luck in applying ever-changing technologies for collection management and conservation. In their spare time, they can pull my college honors thesis off that floppy disc I have lying around somewhere.

Billy Bragg closed his "Compiling a Discography" essay by stating "I guess the only difference between junk and treasure is our personal connection to it." If creative curating and technology can help museums forge personal connections between the collections they house and the public, so much the better. Otherwise the treasures of today will be consigned to the trash heap just like the architectural plaster casts of yesteryear. Ah, but that's another story for another blog entry....

In the meantime, look here, have some Billy from a live performance at WFUVRadio (Link is HERE in case the embed below doesn't show up). He won't be building you a museum but if you're really lucky, he'll sing a song (and whistle) about it. I wish I could get him to write a song about Chester O'Chimp....


Billy Bragg
From Picasso to Saracophagi, Guided by Phone Apps
How Tech is Changing the Museum Experience
How To Make a Spy Exhibit Boring
Jake Barton's Wired 2012 Talk on Technology in Museums 
Museums 2.0: What Happens When Great Art Meets New Media?