Thursday, September 27, 2012

Particles on the Wall at the Museum

For the past three weeks, the Museum staff has been intensely engaged in designing and installing the traveling exhibition, “Particles on the Wall,”  (POTW) a show curated by a group of Seattle-based artists, poets and scientists, which has had several previous installations around the state of Washington, in venues ranging from cafes to libraries. I first saw the exhibition last spring at the UW Undergraduate Library in Seattle, and was enormously excited by it and by meeting its science curator, the neuro-toxicologist Steve Gilbert (I’m very grateful to art historian/activist Susan Platt for bringing the project to our attention).   The exhibition  has been a labor of love for several years by the collective that has nurtured it, which includes visual artist Dianne Dickeman, and poet Nancy Dickeman.  We feel really privileged  at the Museum of Culture and Environment to be working with the "POTW team" on this iteration of the show.

At our Museum, Lynn, Hope and I decided we would work hard to give the exhibition, which features a great deal of visual art and poetry, along with various scientific labels, a highly professional “museum” look and feel.   That meant, among other things, figuring out ways to more closely integrate the narrative “flow” of the installation, more explicitly bringing together the art, poetry, science and social history whenever possible.  I worked with Steve Gilbert  to develop an entry panel for the exhibition, giving a more explicit conceptual frame than had been apparent in previous versions; we also gave the  major sections of the show short, punchy titles, to help orient visitors, such as “In the Beginning”, “Nuclear Nation,”and  “Aftershocks.”  [Our favorite section title, in Miiltonian vein, is  “Dark Materials” --for the section that highlight Lynda Rockwood’s dazzling Vitrification cabinet of curiosities, from her famous Atomic West series. ]

POTW team with Mark Auslander at exhibition entrance
Whenever possible, we tweaked the wording on the science and history “factoid” labels to reference adjacent art and poetry, and to signal, sometimes subtly, a continuous narrative through the gallery space.  It has been a lot of fun working with Steve and the rest of the POTW team to ensure that the scientific content valid of the revised signage is valid and that the tone of the revised installation is consistent with the overarching sensibility of the project, which runs the emotional gamut from shock, to tragic loss, to whimsy and quiet irony.  (Hope came up with the clever idea of inserting signage on the infamous "Green Run" radiation release experiments within a red folder marked "Top Secret" tantalizingly hanging from the wall; she and Lynn also develop a witty 'no touching" sign to help protect the artworks, incorporating the familiar radiation danger logo.)

Early on, we decided that we would in most cases display the poems, which had in previous iterations been on 8 by 11 inch typescripts in small frames, in large format, in black vinyl on the walls. This turned out to be an enormous amount of painstaking work, and I don’t think we quite knew what we were getting ourselves into. Working in vinyl requires carefully “weeding” the machine-generated print outs, then covering the text in masking tape, peeling the letters off and then applying them to the wall. Placing poetry on walls posed particular challenges: we had to think through font and size carefully, ponder aesthetically pleasing alignments, measure and level each stanza, and ensure that each poem was presented with integrity and sufficient framing space. There are some stunning works of poetry in the show, and we’ve worked hard to honor each and every one of them.

Late in the summer, we removed the old Mammoth foam board installation from the atrium’s main wall, and slowly put up four remarkable poems -two by Washington state poet laureate Kathleen Flennikan, one by Debra Greger and one by Bill Witherup. The installation was exhausting, but the results were worth it!

We decided to place the show’s title in blue vinyl along the lower center of the wall, which really pops. Finally, Lynn figured out a way to print out a large logo of an atom in blue vinyl in three sections, for the precise center of the well. Within that, she and Ellen placed a great paper crane in silver vinyl as the atomic ‘nucleus’; it is a striking image which recalls the story of Sadako, the famous Hiroshima young victim of radiation-induced Leukemia and the origami crane that continue to be made around the world in her memory. Ellen and Hope also placed a series of silver cranes on the side door within the gallery, flying in a beautiful, wistfhul flock, starting just above the door and the continuing beyond it. This area will be occupied by a worktable where children and others can learn how to make origami paper cranes in memory of Sadako and other victims of nuclear weapons. 

We had long puzzled over how to give objective correlative to the exhibition’s rather enigmatic title, “Particles on the Wall.”  We moved one of our mobile walls to the front of the gallery, and placed the new framing text in its center, and then decorated the wall with a set of variously sized atoms; the effect is rather one of falling snowflakes or flower petals, giving tangible visual expression, we hope, to the exhibition title.

In some instances, we found ourselves consolidating items that had been scattered through previous versions of POTW. For instance we decided to devote one mobile wall to a range of pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear images and posters, brought together under the rubric sub-title of “Nuclear Nation.”  (Our intern Erin gracefully designed and hung the various artifacts on the wall to play off of one another in striking ways.)

Rather late in the exhibition development process, we got the exciting news that the co-curators had secured permission to exhibit’s Sherman Alexie’s dazzling poem, The Powwow at the End of the World, which may be read at:

How, we wondered, could we do justice to this substantial literary work, which among other things, chronicles in prophetic language the journey of a life-giving salmon from the ocean to the river's headwaters? We decided to place it within an alcove space formed by three of our mobile walls.  After consultation with our Wanapum community partners (who had been forcibly relocated from their ancestral homeland by the construction of the Hanford Engineering Works in 1943) we placed a striking large photograph of a Wanapum canoe at what appears to be the White Bluffs section of Hanford Reach, along with a new label on the history of Native American removal from the Hanford site.

We also developed a small new segment on racism and Jim Crow at Hanford and the Tri-Cities, adapted from the scholarly work of historian Bob Bauman, who kindly shared some of his striking archival photographs, including a tri-cities sign forbidding African Americans from entering a local business.

It has for our staff been a fascinating collaborative process working with the Seattle-based POTW team, as we have together discovered new aspects of the art and poetry, and pondered the challenges of telling this momentous story in an accessible and engaging fashion.

Tonight will mark the exhibition’s official opening and we can’t wait to see how our visitors respond. We’ll debut a short musical composition inspired by the exhibtion, by our Museum Studies student Justin, and hear from the co curators and artists and poets involved in the project, as well as from a Wanapum elder. We’ll be doing public programming with our POTW colleagues and others through the quarer, and are eager to find out what new conversations , arguments, and projects will emerge!

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