Undergraduate Work

  • Eli Savage contributing to The Evolution of Sex and Gender lecture at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

     

    The Evolution of Sex and Gender: Chase Mendenhall on the power of diversity

    Author: Eli Savage

    Undergraduate student and CMNH content contributor

    Chase Mendenhall’s talk on March 7 in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) provided a broad and informative overview of the biological basis for sex and gender diversity. Mendenhall began at the cellular level, detailing how some bacteria extend fibers to one another that serve to transmit information that helps to promote each bacterium’s continued survival. Though this may seem irrelevant to us as humans, leagues removed from our distant, unicellular predecessors, he explained how this is the most basic framework for why diversity is crucial for groups to thrive. He used children playing board games as a human example: if one child finds a new game to play, it is in the best interest of the group for that child to introduce the new game to the group, expanding everybody’s options for play and allowing each child to pick a game best suited to their skillset, maximizing the group’s efficiency and well-being.

    Mendenhall then explained that an organism’s sex, as defined in biology as a near-universal rule, comes down to whether its gametes are relatively large or small. That, he said, was it. Everything else we tend to associate with biological sex—ovaries, testes, penises, vaginas, pregnancy, breasts, etc.—varies wildly, and are viewed in contemporary biology as gendered characteristics rather than sex characteristics. Gender, while a difficult term to define in any concrete and all-encompassing way, can be defined as everything that is associated with or extrapolated from an organism’s sex, from its body parts to its role in a family to the way it does or should act. 

    To illustrate these principles, Mendenhall listed numerous cases of non-human animals that diverge from human ideas of “the norm” when it comes to gender and sexuality. One of these was the long-tailed manakin, a species of tropical bird in which males exhibit almost exclusively homosocial behavior—two males will pair up for life and spend years choreographing an elaborate, beautiful courtship dance to perform for a female during the brief annual mating season. An interesting mystery in this dynamic, though, is that only one of the two males does the vast majority of the mating, and no difference has yet been found between the roles. It is unclear what the other male gains from this arrangement, aside from one chance in a hundred to mate with a female, but their dance, a stunning and mesmerizing display, would not be possible with only one bird.

    Another example was the clownfish. Mendenhall joked that if Finding Nemo had been accurate to the actual behavior of the species, the film would have gone very differently. Clownfish, he explained, live in groups of many males and one egg-bearing female. If the female dies, the males have a solution: one among them changes sex and becomes the new female. This process is beneficial to the survival of the group, and it’s hardly unique to clownfish—many species of fish, amphibians, and other animals practice sex-switching.

    Mendenhall finished his talk by returning to humans, providing two anthropological cases of gender and sexual diversity being beneficial to groups. One being the bissu of the Bugis society in Indonesia, an inter-gender priestly class, and the other being Native American two-spirits, or individuals viewed as containing male and female spirits in one body. Stressing that diversity is a key feature, if not the key feature, of the survival and development of all life. It is not something to be feared or discouraged, but embraced as a natural continuation of how we got to where we are now.

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    Annie Abernathy

     

    Identity Materialized: Touching On Activism in Artist’s Books

    Author: Annie Abernathy

    Archival Scholars Research Award Spring 2019

    *A version of this blogpost was originally presented at the event Archival Scholars in Action on March 22, 2019. Below is an edited version of that presentation.

    In collecting art made with an anti-institution mindset, there is often a contradiction between original meaning and current context. The collection of artist’s books and zines in the Frick Fine Arts Library is a site of this contradiction-- however, unlike many institutions, the library supports the original mission of the art: making these activist themes visible and accessible to the public. As a recipient of the Archival Scholars Research Award this semester, my project has centered around artist’s books from the 1980s and 1990s in this collection. I have been thinking about this research in relation to my library work. Specifically, how do we make decisions about what to collect? How do you collect within the fringes of what is a book and what is art and especially the grey area between the two? A lot of these questions concerning collecting depend upon materiality.

    One of the artist’s books I was immediately drawn to is a booklet of posters made by Fierce Pussy, a feminist artist collective working to bring lesbian identity to the public eye. They did this through disseminating posters around New York City. The artists describe their practice as “adamantly lo-tech, fast and low-budget” as they used what they had on hand, including using the photocopiers at their day jobs to produce the work. In this way, they chose the medium of the poster because of it was cheap and fast. 

    As a material, posters can be widely-disseminated and easily mass-produced. This is especially evident here as Fierce Pussy would have photocopied these designs on printer paper. Since it would have been affordable paper, more could be produced to invade the public space of New York. The medium of the poster itself reflects the dematerialization of the art object discussed by Lucy Lippard as it falls in the category of “art that can be shown inexpensively and unobtrusively in infinite locations at one time.” In this way, posters can be seen as both anti-capitalist and anti-institution because of their ephemeral nature. How exactly could a museum possibly collect an entire city block of wheatpasted posters?

    The posters of Fierce Pussy are an example of an artist thinking about public activism, where the large scale and volume of art objects reflects the scale of the intended audience. Contrasting this, Adrian Piper’s My Calling (Cards) #1 and 2 are examples of personal activism. Whereas Fierce Pussy’s posters are about 13 by 18 inches, these cards are each 2 by 3 and 1/2 inches. Their stark difference in size is underscored when these works are presented side by side. Calling cards like these were a performance piece by Piper in the late 1980s. She would hand out the brown card, for example, when someone made a racist joke at a dinner party, not realizing Piper’s race. And if a man flirted with her in a bar, she would hand him one of the white cards. She chose this material because of its intimate scale. This material is also connected to other social rituals such as business cards or even ‘calling cards’ of the nineteenth century. These references further point to Piper’s personal approach to activism in one-on-one contexts. 

    Similar to the Fierce Pussy posters, these cards are also anti-institution in their ephemeral materiality, but as these artists have become more well-known, their activism has been co-opted and recontextualized in an institutional setting. This can be seen as both artworks in our collection are reprints sold by major cultural entities twenty years after the work’s original conception and use. In reprinting the object, there is a disconnect from the original materiality and meaning. For example, the fierce pussy posters are on a firmer type of paper with a spiral binding, giving more ‘bookish’ qualities. At the same time, however, this reproduction allows them to be collected by multiple institutions, such as the Frick Fine Arts Library, in order for them to be more accessible to a wider audience and to be accessible for research such as mine. 

    The materiality of artist’s books is integral to their meaning, so, of course, reproduction of these objects presents challenges. Similarly, artist’s books present challenges in exhibition making. In my next stages of this project, I will develop a pop-up exhibition for the Frick Fine Arts Library which will be on view April 10 from 1-3 pm. Featuring artist’s books from the 1980s and 1990s as well as contemporary zines and activist art, I hope to materialize these social issues of the past and situate them in the present social climate.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    Special Collections Trip for Introduction to Medieval Art

    Author: Sarah Reiff Conell

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    Taking an introductory class of 100 students with no recitation sections to Special Collections seemed, at first, a daunting task. My recent experience, however, radically shifted my perception of how feasible and rewarding this undertaking is. Professor Shirin Fozi coordinated with the professionals in Special Collections to organize small-group time slots for which students could register. The Special Collections team was exceptionally generous in their willingness to coordinate visits for students who were unable to make one of the scheduled windows of time.

    While it is often logistically necessary to use projected images to present objects covered in courses, these conditions can obscure the physicality of an object. Special Collections provides a space for different modes of contact. As a graduate student, it was instructive to witness how Dr. Fozi clearly described these works and their structure in a way that engaged the students. As the groups rotated through, I was able to hone my object descriptions through close observation of a masterful teacher and my own iterative practice. 

    Pitt’s fabulous facsimile collection supports meaningful interactions with objects, allowing students to turn manuscript pages, explore their contents, and discuss in small groups about the use of objects. It gives them real-world experience that informs their understandings and allows them to make better-informed inferences. For example, it was exciting to see students quickly drawing on their knowledge of purple codices from lecture when they encountered the Rossano Gospels. They were able to proficiently discuss the assertions of Pope Gregory the Great (that pictures are books of the illiterate) by toggling between the narrative illustrations in this manuscript and its purple-stained pages that betray a more elite audience. They then seamlessly moved onto the mixture of pagan and Christian imagery on the enigmatic Franks Casket, drawing on their exposure to other examples of composite objects from lecture. 

    Students engaged with a mixture of facsimiles, including three objects we had covered in class, three unfamiliar works that were comparable to things previously seen, and one artwork that we were going to discuss in the following class. Within this set, it was productive to have a variety of surrogates with which to engage. The diversely scaled manuscripts were paired with replicas from Dr. Fozi’s personal collection, the Franks Casket and a paper foldout of the Bayeux Tapestry. This collection provided punctuated moments for students to consider the role of form in beholding and use of medieval art. 

    Making the wonderful holdings of the University’s Special Collections visible to undergraduates early in their educational careers empowers students to engage with objects and enriches their time at Pitt. A brief introduction to the space and holdings of Special Collections is informative in and of itself, but it is clear that interacting with this rich corpus of facsimiles yields great rewards. 

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    Mapping Mobility in the UAG

    Author: Ellen Larson

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture and University Art Gallery graduate fellow

    As University Art Gallery (UAG) graduate fellow, I am collaborating with HAA Professor Michelle McCoy, along with five undergraduate students on a pop-up exhibition to take place in the UAG mid-March. This exhibition supplements Professor McCoy’s HAA 1010: Approaches to Art History undergraduate course, focusing on Chinese art objects within the UAG collection. Students selected Chinese work, as a means of initiating in-depth original research on themes and ideas related to the art objects themselves or broadly connected to socio-cultural contexts from which these materials emerge. 

    In my role as a curator and mentor to undergraduate students, I am working with the class to conceive a short-term exhibition that presents these objects as portable agents of culture, whose value lies not only within the realm of connoisseurship and museum collecting, but also as transient catalysts of new knowledge activated through their physical positions within an exhibition-setting. Rather than uncovering specific temporal histories, the exhibition seeks to extend spatial and thematic connections between works centered upon mobility and exchange. 

    Selected artworks include ink paintings by Chinese master painter, modern nomad, and notorious forger Zhang Daqian (1899-1983). Following the Communist takeover and subsequent establishment of the People’s Republic of China on the Mainland in 1949, Zhang Daqian traveled to Macau, Argentina, Brazil, and Carmel, California, before settling in Taipei in 1978. Other featured works include rubbings depicting seventh-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang, whose travels led him to regions throughout central Asia including parts of modern India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Xuanzang’s writings inspired the sixteenth-century Chinese classic novel Journey to the West. Additional objects include a selection of Chinese snuff bottles, whose aesthetic utilitarianism is juxtaposed with the non-utilitarianism of a ritual ceramic vessel displaying the abstracted character , meaning “good fortune.” This object references a common practice of pasting the upside-down character  in one’s doorway, allowing good fortune to descend upon the dwelling, as the words for “upside-down” and “to arrive” are homophonous. This is further suggested by the same Chinese term, which indicates the performative action of pouring liquid from a vessel. While the selection of snuff bottles and  ritual vessel are commodity objects, the latter serves as a striking example of totality found within the context of written language, material objects, and ritual practice. 

    Echoing the words of Susan Stewart, this particular presentation of objects replaces the notion of origin with classification, presenting “temporality as a spatial and material phenomenon.” [1] In addition to displacing one’s understanding of time, the collection’s relational organization highlights the exhibition’s function as a three-dimensional map into which gallery visitors are invited to physically enter. These objects represent points of exchange and connection; concealed and revealed only through their spatial relationships to each other. Thus, new knowledge is produced through space, and is further activated through the creation of multiple networks that traverse and transition from Pittsburgh to China, and beyond. 

    [1] Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1984), 153. 

     

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  • Dinosaurs in Their Time - The exhibit that I worked on during my first several days as conservation intern

     

    Conservation: Preserving the Past for Future Generations

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Fall 2018

    For the last four months I have worked as a Conservation Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. During this time, I have been exposed to a wide range of practices common among natural history conservators that I can apply to my future career. While before the internship I maintained a keen interest in the field of conservation, working under head conservator Gretchen Anderson has given me a newfound appreciation of conservation work. I have learned that conservation encompasses a wide range of responsibilities and expects that the conservation team work closely with many other departments, including exhibits, collections, and curatorial.

    Over the course of the semester I had the opportunity to clean and preserve taxidermied specimens, package and send out loans, assist with scientific imaging, and create a housekeeping plan for the entirety of the museum of natural history. Interspersed between these hands-on activities were cross-departmental meetings, instructional readings, and even classes to further teach me about the science of conservation.

    The housekeeping plan was the most urgent and important task of the semester, requiring that I met with staff from each section of collections, maintenance, and facilities. All of these departments worked together to set a standard that would keep the museum clean and all collections safe. Without the dedicated work of a conservator, museum collections would not last nearly as long as is now allowed.

    I appreciate the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s willingness to teach and willingness to give true responsibility to their interns. I have learned more than I would have ever expected, and I am excited to one day establish myself in the conservation field.

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  • Photograph of myself in front of a fossil diorama at the CMNH, a topic of discussion at a meeting.

     

    Ethics: How Museum Policies Are Made

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History—Fall 2018

    This semester I worked as the Ethics Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH). My experience opened my eyes to what goes into policy and decision making for a large institution. As an avid museum-goer my whole life, I never considered what goes into making exhibits and installations that the public gets to see. The work I completed over the course of this semester exposed me to the other side of museum work and gave me an appreciation for how museums function. 

    During my internship, I was responsible for researching Codes of Ethics from American Alliance of Museums accredited institutions and compiled all the information into recommendations for the CMNH’s Code of Ethics revision. This unique internship provided me with opportunities to grow as a researcher and allowed me to partake in meetings with various museum staff and faculty members. 

    During my internship, I had the opportunity to attend three meetings with senior museum staff. I met with the Director of the Museum, Director of Science and Research, and the Chairman of the Ethics committee, as well as two staff members who work in the collections department. My final meeting was with my mentor and the Chairman of the Ethics committee to present my findings. During these meetings, numerous museum issues and regulations were discussed, including whether or not fossils should be treated as minerals or human remains, and even how to display ivory in the animal dioramas. Through these conversations, I learned about the ethical considerations of curation and display in natural history museums. My internship experience gave me a new perspective as a museum-goer.  When I walk into museums now, I can no longer look at intricate animal dioramas or Native American artifacts passively. Now, I have an understanding of the ethical issues and procedures that go into displaying these objects.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    Studying a Vietnam War Veteran at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall

    Museums Studies Intern at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum — Fall 2018

    Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum is an institution that commemorates our veterans and fallen heroes that have participated in the many conflicts that the United States has participated in. The staff of the museum is dedicated to the preservation of the personal artifacts of many veterans, and they endeavor to teach children, seniors, and adults alike about the hardships and struggles of our military personnel. The museum itself is a small institution, but they work hard to cover the various wars and conflicts the United States has engaged in from the American Civil War up to the present day.

    My main project during my internship was analyzing the photographs and letters sent home by a veteran of the Vietnam conflict, Sgt. John R. Elm. John Elm spent a year in Vietnam, serving his country dutifully. He was born on January 19th, 1948, and died on September 14th, 2003. He lived in Pittsburgh, and frequently sent letters and photographs that he took home to his family. He was sent to Vietnam in June 1968 and went home in July 1969. He would write home in his free time in order to calm his nerves after experiencing stressful combat situations. However, he would leave out gory details when addressing his family at large, preferring to save those details for letters home to his sister, Maxine Elm. Elm bought a camera while in Vietnam, and sent many pictures home with the letters, which allowed me to connect many of the photographs to what Elm wrote about in his letters home.

    One of the most touching aspects of letters and photos that John sent home from the battlefield was the story of his battery’s adoption of a stray dog as their “mascot.” This dog’s name was Pro-Jo, short for “projectile,” perhaps due to her climbing into a mortar canon. It was thought that they lost her in Dong Tam when they took her to get shots, but she showed back up later on. By the end of John’s time in Vietnam, he heard that the men that were going to take their leave in Hawaii were planning on bringing Pro-Jo along and finding her a family. It’s rather heartwarming that John Elm’s story in Vietnam ended with him going back home to Pittsburgh and a stray dog finding a home. 

    I worked with Lisa Petita (Collections Manager), Tim Neff (Vice President/Director of Museum & Education), and Michael Kraus(Curator). Outside of my main project, my day to day tasks included aiding in the accession of received military artifacts, helping with setting up for events such as the Canon Ball Fundraiser and school visitations, as well as occasionally aiding with the instruction of visiting school groups.

    My experiences at Soldiers and Sailors were extremely valuable and I am glad that I have had a chance to intern here. I have gained a greater appreciation for the common man in the military, and the struggles that they have gone through. I also appreciate the great work that the people who work there go through in order to sustain a museum collection, no matter how small. 

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  • Taylor and her fellow interns construct Trisha Holt’s 16 piece, 4'x4' rug.

     

    Curating an Exhibition: From the Ground Up

    Museum Studies Intern at Silver Eye Center for Photography – Fall 2018

    At the start of my internship at Silver Eye Center for Photography, I was selected to collaboratively curate an exhibition with senior staff members and my fellow interns from Point Park University. Our first goal was to find 100 regional photographers for the exhibition. We individually researched artists based on location, then documented our favorites through Pinterest. We have collected seventy-seven photographers altogether, and are now working to narrow the group down to 10-15 photographers, selecting a variety of creative visions and locations. The exhibition will be shown at Silver Eye during the Spring of 2019.

    As part of our training, Silver Eye’s Communications Coordinator Kate Kelley devoted a generous amount of her time and energy into teaching us basic design strategies for email and social media, archiving prints decades old into digital media, and installing artwork. My fellow interns and I also learned about printing photographs, framing images, and properly handling and packaging framed items for shipping in the Lab at Silver Eye from Sean Stewart. Over the past few weeks, I have also had the opportunity to observe and assist in installing two exhibitions: Door into the Dark and The In-Between. During install week for The In-Between, the other interns and I constructed Trisha Holt’s sixteen piece rug, as seen in the attached image. Holt’s “rug” is not made of textile, but rather paper with an enlarged image of a rug that has been expanded into sixteen pieces, creating a four by four work that appears like a rug from a distance. Because the work is intended to be walked upon, we felt that it was essential to curate the piece in such a way that felt inviting for people to interact with.

    These learning experiences will be applied to two upcoming Spring shows at Silver Eye,

    Come April 2019, I will have been a part of four group exhibitions at this location. Working with this organization has  looking forward to continue working with this team next semester, completing the regional photography exhibition, and sharing the images of photographers we have worked so hard to discover.

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    Interactive Art: A gateway to the Abstract

    Museum Studies intern at Carnegie Museum of Art – Fall 2018

    This fall I’ve had the privilege of working under Marilyn Russell, the Curator of Education at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and Sally Cao, the Curatorial and Education Program Manager, during the Carnegie International 2018. I was tasked with analyzing and attempting to quantify Gallery ambassador surveys from the exhibits and helping to build a picture of how the ambassadors can assist the guests and enhance the visitor experience. While there are many examples of how they do this, what caught me the most was the passing comments of the visitors which were recorded by the ambassadors.

    What stood out to me is just how much people from all ages had to say about the pieces. The art Labor piece focuses on consumerism and the effects it has on other countries. It uses Vietnamese coffee as an example, as the coffee industry has largely changed the agricultural landscape in that country for the purpose of the product being sold in other countries. The comments from the art labor exhibit range everywhere from “Where can I get coffee like this?” to “It’s like eco-gentrification” and everything in between. Although some of these comments miss the point, but perhaps that’s not the point. In analyzing art or anything else, one has to risk the chance of being wrong. Of course, this isn’t a definitive comment, but when I compare the volume of comments on the surveys along with the comments I’ve observed while wondering the exhibits myself, I’ve found that the amount of comments directed at interactive exhibits greatly surpass those at non-interactive exhibits. This might vary base on the demographic of the visitors. In any event, what follows those statements from what I’ve observed is engagement with the ambassador. This turns the idle comments into a deeper form of understanding including more abstract ideas. It’s my belief that the increase of comfort levels with art using this kind of interaction is the bridge to having the confidence to speak on the feelings one gets from interacting with art that is less physical.

    Ultimately, I feel very privileged to have been able to work under people like Ms. Russell and Ms. Cao and work with their insight and experience to better understand how the guests interact with the museum and seeing how the museum also effects the guest and corresponding community as it opens their minds in various ways and to various topics which they otherwise might not be interacting with. I of course include myself apart of that latter category and attribute my better understanding of the museum’s important place in the community to this internship position and to the insights of the ambassadors and guests with whom I’ve spent time

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  • Exploring the book, Building Stories, while sitting in the Special Collections Department reading room.

     

    Building Stories

    Museum Studies Intern at Special Collections Department, Hillman Library – Fall 2018

    During my internship at the Special Collections Department of Hillman Library, I worked with a recent acquisition called Building Stories that helped me rediscover my love of books. Building Stories is not a typical book—packaged in a board game-style box and bound in various forms such as comic strips, a Little Golden Book, and full-page illustrations. The plot of the book does not have a singular storyline, instead, it depends on the way the reader begins each section, meaning that everyone reads the book differently and has a unique experience. Not only does the reader build a story, but the story itself is about a building and its tenants: the landlady on the ground floor, the main character on the first floor, a couple on the second floor, and an anthropomorphized bee. 

    Interning at the Special Collections Department of Hillman Library aided in my discovery of the incredible materials they have. On most days, I shelved and pulled books, conducted research for several projects, and compiled lists of the materials visiting classes used so both the Department and the students can refer to them again. 

    These tasks allowed me to interact with intriguing texts and learn about new literary genres.. For example, when a class focusing on science fiction came for a browsing session, I composed a list of all the books and pulp magazines they used. Before their visit I had heard of pulp magazines but had never directly interacted with them. Working with this collection, I learned how imaginative and interesting pulp magazines covers and stories are. Interning reminded me of the joys of discovery libraries offer. When I was in high school, I used to love libraries and books. I finished a novel every other day and was constantly looking for new reading material. Once I began college, I no longer felt like I had the time to read books for pleasure. Working with the materials in the Special Collections Department, reminded me of the vibrant creativity that goes into developing books, magazines, and other forms of literature. I am grateful I had the opportunity to intern there because exploring their extraordinary resources renewed my appreciation for books and libraries. 

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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