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Squint Harder: Collaborative Discovery in the Museum

Museum Director Mark Auslander ruminates on the idea of slow looking, inspired by the Museum’s collaborative evening event with the College of Arts and Letter's new Citizen Scholar program. Students in the program were challenged to look carefully in and around the Museum and write new imaginative labels for objects.

“Squint harder.”Image of Citizen Scholars

That’s what our legendary botanist Professor William J. Beal (1833-1924) told his students to do whenever they examined a plant or natural science specimen.  Frank Telewski quoted that dictum last Wednesday evening, as we gathered outside of the museum in front of the well known “resilient tree," the white oak that miraculously survived a July 2016 storm and continues to flourish, despite having lost much of its circumference. Dr. Telewski, the MSU botanist who has studied and championed the tree, spoke to a dozen freshmen and sophomores from the College of Arts and Letter’s new Citizen Scholar program who were participating in the Museum's "Words about Nature” program.  Close looking is at the heart of the scientific method, and it is key to the spirit of our Museum: when we gather together, slow things down, and “squint” long enough, we discover things together we might have missed on our own.

Re-Thinking the “Resilient Tree”

The students had been invited to the workshop by Professor Sandra Logan, who directs the Citizen Scholar program. They looked carefully at the tree and then set themselves to the task of writing new imaginative labels for it. Museum exhibition manager Teresa Goforth shared her basic philosophy of label writing: a great museum sign doesn’t just convey information, it helps stop visitors in their tracks with a striking “headline,” that might use humor or a startling phrase, to help encourage them to look at an object or installation with new eyes. Curator Mary Worrall chimed in: the best labels don’t simply provide answers, but pose questions, making visitors think for themselves and figure out their own solutions to a puzzle.  As Teresa likes to say, if food taste best when it is the product of “slow cooking,” then museums work best when they promote “slow looking.”

As the students worked singly or in small groups seated on the lawn around the tree, I was struck by how their written words engaged with a fascinating paradox about trees: they are both like and unlike people themselves.  One group, squinting hard, discerned the likeness of an aged human face in the tree’s upper regions, and wrote about the tree as a mirror of a person, surviving and thriving amidst all manner of tribulations.  One student wrote a label that was equally true for the tree and for people: “What are you hiding? Looks can be deceiving.” With similar double-meaning another group wrote a deceivingly simple label for the tree, “Change, Rebirth, Adjustment.”

After enjoying pizza in the museum’s foyer, the students then wrote new labels for the extraordinary large format photographs of icebergs and storm clouds in Camille Seaman’s stunning exhibition, "All My Relations,” an indigenous meditation on global climate change.  Squinting hard at an image of a jagged Antarctic ice-flow, a student discovered a little bird perched at its pinnacle. She wrote as her label “Fly Away. When your wings can take you any inch of the world, you still may find comfort in the strangest of places.”  Sandra wrote about a photo of a massive storm cloud bearing down on a tiny Midwestern farm, in which, in her words, human life is “dwarfed,” even as we behold the grandeur of human perseverance in the face of apocalypse.

Next, we’ll be gathering together these wonderful new labels and sharing them through the twitter feed from our beloved Museum Mascot, the Twitter Bear, @MSUMuseumBear. Who knows what new ideas will be tweeted back from us by our larger audience?

Re-imagining an Object of Memory

The night before, I benefited from another kind of “squinting.”  A packed audience gathered in the Museum’s foyer for my first annual Director’s lecture. I spoke about the enigmatic object known as "Ashley's Sack,” now on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. The embroidered bag was given by an enslaved woman named Rose to her nine-year-old daughter when the girl was sold away in South Carolina in the early 1850s. The sack, the embroidered story recounts, contained “a tattered dress, three handfulls [sic] of pecans, a braid of Rose’s hair.” Rose told her daughter of the sack, “It be filled with my Love always”

I proposed that the sack may have functioned in part as a “conjure bag,” a compilation of sacred objects used in Afro-Atlantic traditions to provide protection and healing, inspired by the central African “nkisi” power bundles of the BaKongo peoples, which often contained human hair and other valued substances.  

During discussion, I saw graduate student Shanti Ali Zaid (Anthropology/AAAS) sitting high up on the museum’s grand staircase, squinting thoughtfully at the distant screen, on which the bag was displayed.  He made a brilliant suggestion: might the remembered “tattered dress” have signaled the practice of tearing or rending clothing at times of mourning? Speculatively, might Rose have given her daughter, at the terrible moment when they would be parted for all time, a token of her our mourning for her own lost mother, as a way of conveying the strength of lineage, paradoxically, to her daughter at a moment of tragic isolation?  It is a terrific idea, one that I'll continue to ponder, and I’m grateful he took the time to engage in some “slow looking" of his own.

Membership Tours?

As we roll out our new Museum Membership program, we’re eager to continue this journey of co-discovery together. Our curators we hope will be taking members on tours though Michigan museums and nature sanctuaries, and in time on international trips, perhaps to bioreserves in New Zealand, East Africa, and India.  We’ll look at fossil formations with paleontology curator Mike Gottfried, perhaps get to see some of the bird species ornithology curator Pam Rasmussen has discovered in South Asia and ponder elephants with mammalogy curator Barb Lundrigan.  History curator Shirley Wajda may take us through rarely seen historic houses and archives. As we “squint harder” together, I can’t wait to find out what we will uncover together—about the natural world and our place in it.

Photography by:
Casey Boland
College of Arts & Letters
Social Media and Communications Intern