Trip Report: Brooklyn Historical Society

  • Impressions: The level of exhibition design and the range of content at the Brooklyn Historical Society surprised and me from the start.   The ornate, landmark building is stunning and the mixture of contemporary aesthetic with the architecture was more pleasing than I anticipated.
  • Atmosphere:  You walk into the Brooklyn Historical Society and immediately you get personal attention.  You find yourself at the front desk and someone wants to help.  There aren’t many people there, it’s a small institution, and yet they clearly are enthusiastic about their exhibitions.
  • The Interface of the Museum:
    • A word (or two)for its personality: Cozy, polished, intimate.


  • A memorable object, exhibit, or hall: I really loved Personal Correspondents: Photography and Letter Writing in Civil War Brooklyn.  I’m a sucker for civil war letters, and the overall design, again, was compelling and effective.  Why (feels important to ask that)?  The use of primary documents with curatorial content, plus voice-over readings and period photography made for a multi-sensory experience of the material.  The whole exhibit fit in one small room and yet there was enough content to provide hours of engagement.  I also appreciated this analog interactive, a desk where you could write your own letter to a soldier far-off in time and space.


  • Interactive technology exhibits: I was very excited by the Potion-designed interactives at BHS, because I haven’t seen this type of mechanism before–pulling strings to trigger video, and it felt so well integrated with the content of the In Pursuit of Freedom / Brooklyn Anti-Slavery exhibit, more so than most panel-based or button-based interactive displays.
  • Hospitality: as mentioned the front desk staff are enthusiastic and helpful, and otherwise there aren’t many docents/guards, so you feel like you have the museum to yourself.
  •  Who’s there?: No one.  I did not see one other person in the exhibits, only researchers in the gorgeous Othmer research library.
  •  Museum Website: 
    • I’m not sure it captures the museum…it lets you know what’s there, and so if you have been before it communicates what you need to know, but the character of the BHS is not really represented by the site.
    • The website for the In Pursuit of Freedom exhibit does capture that part of the museum and feels like a companion to it.
    • The BHS seems to host interesting events, so I would go back to get news about what’s happening there.
    • The basic info (open hours, address) are is available through the first link on the top menu of the website.
  • What does BHS do well that I want to remember as I go forward?  Knowing that the museum doesn’t have massive resources, I was impressed by the level of care, thought, and craft in their exhibits.  I’d like to keep in mind how much can be achieved in a small space with effort into content and creative approaches to presenting that material.
    “How do you define freedom?


Source: Cabinets of Wonder

Reading Response: Sound as Social Currency

Sonic Etiquette

Reading Relational Aesthetics alongside preparations for Christine Sun Kim’s visit to our Performing Participation class, I was struck by the question of how relational dynamics emerge differently when interactions occur across less familiar communication lines.  There is an approach to creating social moments that draws on comforting, mundane, or habitual elements such as cooking, sitting together, brainstorming in an office, workshopping in an educational setting.  What about when the elements are novel for most participants?  What about when they speak to senses we don’t typically activate?  What about when they lack cues that we normally depend on (like a visual aspect alongside the sonic, or text/language as the basis of social exchange)?  

Sun Kim puts forward a notion of “sonic etiquette”.  Here she seems to be referring to sounds that are meaningful to an individual because or their relation to other people — whether the sounds bring annoyance or pleasure or another response.  If I choose such a sound to share with someone, in the absence of an explanatory context, then I open up a channel for understanding and exchange that is both rich and more demanding than if I were to merely describe what I’m sharing.  How might this extra demand placed on the recipient be productive?  Is there a politics of sonic etiquette that is able to put forward a different critique than verbal communication?  Is there an aesthetics of sonic etiquette that impacts the body, the heart, the observational self in a new way?

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Reading Response: Towards Intentional Community-Building

Why Create Communities?

I found immediate resonance with Claire Bishop’s critique of Relational Aesthetics in our reading from this week for Performing Participation: “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”.  Bishop calls attention to the necessity of rigor when it comes to asking “What is this for?” as we assess works that attempt communicative, interactive, relational engagements with an audience.  She points out that Relational Aesthetics author Nicolas Bourriaud considers this question only to a shallow degree, if at all, as he presents his examples of artists working in a relational mode.  She refers to Rosalyn Deutsche’s assertion that democracy is contingent on “conflict, division, and instability”.  I recognize alignment with her critique because it’s a fundamental concern of mine, and it presents me with the beginnings of an argument for more rigor both in assessing and also creating works that adopt these formal strategies.

The contemporary artistic projects Bishop profiles, such as Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (Still), that generate what Bourriaud calls “microtopias”, ad hoc and ephemeral communities, are both appealing to tangibility-starved citizens and problematic when they lack a guiding premise.  Their very accessibility and sense of comfort — best described by the German word gemütlichkeit — is the factor that complicates their ability to meaningfully operate as conversational, connective, relational spaces.  If you are surrounded by your friends, steeped in easy bonhomie, what impetus is there for exchange that raises consciousness, provokes critical thought, or foregrounds understanding across contentious divides?  How does the artistic context, without an intent for what type of community will arise within the work, afford anything useful or more meaningful than a church picnic or a dinner party?

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