Sunday, December 20

December Update

I was back at work this week after a short but sweet visit home to Illinois, where Eric and I spent a few days visiting my family. It was good to spend some time at home, but now it's back to the daily grind. My work schedule doesn't really change over the holidays. While most museum staff get the holidays off, the Education department must provide staff to run the public programming during what often turns out to be our busiest two weeks of the year. These holidays in the trenches, so to speak, are probably the hardest part of the job to accept and get used to. Just like everyone else I want to have some time off to enjoy the end-of-the-year festivities, but duty calls. Still, on the positive side, it does feel good to be a part of other people's time with their families and friends and maybe help make their visit to the museum memorable. These days, for people working in the humanities, it also feels good just to have a job. There are a lot of people who aren't so lucky, and I do my best to remind myself of that fact when I'm at work wishing I was someplace else.

Hopefully these last few days of the year will be relatively uneventful and quiet. Well, maybe not so much quiet. A couple of Eric's buddies surprised him with a home theater system for Christmas. Now my living room is home to two speaker tower monstrosities and something called a subwoofer. I enjoy surround sound as much as anyone, but I'm not a fan of having to accommodate the requisite equipment in my home. Also, now when Eric plays "Modern Warfare 2" on his Xbox, it sounds as if a tactical assault is going down in our apartment. Sigh. Ever the long-suffering wife, I endure, knowing there will come a day when Eric's boyish enjoyment of this fancy noise-maker on steroids will be seriously checked.

I've been following the news reports of the hefty snowstorm hitting the eastern U.S. this weekend. It always seems a bit odd during the winter months to hear people talking about snow and ice while L.A. enjoys 70 degree temperatures, warm breezes, and sunshine. I've always said one of the few perks of L.A. is the weather this time of year. For all of you who will be freezing your patootie's off this winter in less temperate regions, I'll be thinking of you as I'm cruising up the street with the window down under the sunshine and palm trees!

My family: Eric (my husband), me, Dad, Mom, Erin, and Ethan (Erin's boyfriend)

Cousins: Erin, me, Lacy, and Heather

Tuesday, December 8

Christmas Tree 2009

This is our 2009 Christmas tree. As you can see, the sucker barely fits, and that only after I went to Home Depot, bought a hand saw, and made like a lumberjack in my own kitchen to take a foot or so off. It is undoubtedly a beautiful tree, but I don't believe I've ever worked so hard for a Christmas tree!

Due to the extraordinary height of the tree, we couldn't use our angel tree topper this year. Instead we had to settle for our small star tree topper, which was obviously designed for a much smaller tree. But hey, it still looks pretty, right?

Saturday, November 21

Artifact Handling

This fall our school program has been piloting a "multiple visit" curriculum, in which we work with one class of sixth graders over the course of two classroom visits and three visits to the museum, each session focusing on a different type of ancient art (frescoes, mosaics, and marble). Last Wednesday was the culmination of the program, and we returned to the school in order to facilitate an artifact handling session. Yes, that's right--we let sixth graders handle two thousand year old objects. With an introductory lecture on how to handle fragile objects, why it's so important to wear gloves, and the strategic placement of pillows, it's actually not as insane or nerve-wracking an experience as it sounds.

While some museums have what are called "study collections" that are kept for scholars and students to study and examine, we did not bring artifacts from the museum. It turns out the Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD) has what they call an "Art and Artifact Collection" that they were willing to make available to the students in our program. They provided a selection of artifacts (mostly Roman terracotta oil lamps, strigils, and styli) and we facilitated the handling and talked to the students about the objects and how they were made and used in the ancient world. It was really a pretty neat experience. I know the kids were jazzed about it, although I don't think they understood just how special it was that they had this opportunity to handle real artifacts.
A student and I examine an ancient Roman oil lamp. 
Below is a picture of the oil lamp my group of kids worked with--they were given a worksheet of questions to answer, which prompted them to try and figure out on their own what it was made of, what it might have been used for, and who might have used it. The kids in my group were very sharp. They eventually figured out our object was a lamp made of clay. Not too bad for three sixth graders who just started studying ancient history this year! The credit goes to their teacher, of course, but I'd like to think all of the time they spent in the galleries with educators over the course of their three visits at the Villa made a difference too.

Roman terracotta oil lamp with an image of the goddess Minerva. 

Friday, November 20

New Office Digs

Over the past week my fellow teachers and I were relocated into some new office real estate. Since I started at the Villa, I've been sitting in a desk against the wall under the exit sign. This week I got to move downstairs into a snazzy new office digs with about three times the space as my little desk against the wall.

My old space--all packed up and ready to go.

As a lover of books, for me the best thing about my new work area is the five bookshelves that come with it. Even the dreariest work space can be made to feel homey if you add enough books. My new location also has the added benefit of walls, which makes it easier to be productive. Also, with the "out of sight, out of mind" work place principal, disappearing into your lair for significant amounts of time and then reemerging makes it seem like you must have been diligently working all that time. Right?

My new location also comes with these lovely adjustable entryway bookshelves. In case you can't tell, the theme is kmt Srjt ("Little Egypt")--appropriate, given my Illinois and Egyptology connections. Plus, let's face it: I have a lot of Egypt stuff, so it's not that difficult for me to pull off.

Since I now have the luxury of space, I have my bookshelves organized into categories: Egyptology, ancient languages and academic journals, Mesopotamia and the "rest" of the ancient world, and museums and gender issues. It's kind of an eclectic assembly of subjects, but they're the ones I work in most frequently, so they suit my specific needs quite well.

A new desk and bookshelves may not seem like something exciting enough to write home about, but for me the more inviting and homey the workspace, the easier it is to be there. Besides, who doesn't like a little change of scenery every now and then? I will certainly not be shedding any tears over the loss of my place below the exit sign!

Tuesday, November 10

Fall Back

I'm not sure why, but every year the "fall back" time change is always somewhat depressing to me. You would think that extra hour of sleep would make it something to look forward to each fall, but I'm not a fan of leaving work in the dark. There's something inherently exhausting about leaving home just as the sun's coming up and returning long after it's gone down. Eric returned from his globe-trotting trip over a week ago. It's nice to have him back, but my month of singleness turned out to be kind of a bust. Shortly after he left I came down with that monster of a cold that's been making the rounds, so I had only about a week to truly exploit my freedom. One thing I already knew but was able to confirm during my dear husband's absence is that without a male in the house there are almost no housekeeping duties. Within minutes of his return the place was wrecked, but I forgave him because he brought me Godiva chocolates and a stuffed hippo.

My good fortune was short-lived. Not long after Eric got back I slipped on a wet patch on the bathroom floor and took a spectacularly awkward fall, busting my big toe and leaving me with a huge bruise on my leg. I still can't put any weight on my toe after over a week, and it has been both annoying and tiring having to limp all around the Villa. The staff areas are not designed very well for anyone who has a hard time getting around--there are stairs everywhere. The swelling and bruising are improving, but I still feel like a walking (or rather, limping) testament to my own clumsiness.

This week is packing week at work. We're going through an office version of musical chairs at the end of the week, so I've been packing up my workspace. The move is definitely an upgrade in my case. I'll be saying so long to a corner desk under the emergency exit sign and moving into my own spacious cubicle. It will have about three times the space my current workspace has, so I'm looking forward to settling in to my new digs. I'll be sure to post some pictures of the new space once I'm all moved in.

Sunday, November 1

Riley's at Los Rios Rancho

I had another wonderful autumn outing this year at Los Rios Rancho with friends. For me it really is worth the drive over to Yucaipa to get a taste of the fall season that I used to get at home in Illinois every year. Pumpkin patches, orchards, roasted corn, genuine BBQ, cider, homemade apple pie, and a cute little country store all come together to work their magic. I'll never quite be able to forgive Southern California for its almost total lack of an autumn season, but thankfully the surrounding mountains help make up for the deficiency. All things considered, it was a great day and a very good way to kick off November.

The sign reads, "Rock flume, circa 1909."

Trust me, they use the phrase "corn maze" lightly.

All of us: Joe, Debra, me, German, Melissa, Amy, and Devi.

Friday, October 23

Villa College Night '09

Live music in the Inner Peristyle

Anyone who has ever had the chance to attend an after-hours party at the Villa knows that as beautiful as the place is in the daylight, nighttime transforms it into an almost magical place. This week we hosted our annual "College Night" event, attended by faculty and students from universities all around Southern California. Giving tours on College Night is always a fun experience, because the students are there to have a good time and they come into the galleries with a laid back curiosity that makes for great discussion. Aside from offering tours of conservation labs and various galleries in the museum, we had lots of great food and drinks, live music by the Boulder Acoustic Society in the Inner Peristyle garden, and historical reenactors from Legio VI Victrix wandering around the museum portraying Roman soldiers and civilians (including Pliny the Elder and a medicus equipped with a real wax tablet) in full costume and gear. It was a long work day, but a very enjoyable evening.

Glass and gem handling gave guests a chance to learn how ancient glass was made and how engraved gems were carved.

Two Legio VI actors, a soldier and this betrothed, wandering the Outer Peristyle garden at sunset.

Me, giving one of my gallery talks on the "mystery of the red shroud mummy."

The Inner Peristyle after dark.

I missed Pliny the Elder, but I did manage to get my picture taken with two of the soldiers from Legio VI. It was a photo opportunity not to be missed!

Tuesday, October 13

Looking vs. Seeing

Every so often in my time as a museum educator I have had the opportunity to teach blind and low vision groups. The most recent opportunity came this summer, when a group from the Braille Institute in Santa Barbara came to the Villa. Sadly, in the past blind or low vision groups have not found the museum a very accommodating place. People can be impatient with blind visitors, perhaps not realizing at first that they cannot see. Other problems can occur with seeing-eye dogs, if security officers are not properly instructed in how to deal with them. Sometimes there is also an attitude that those without sight cannot really enjoy a museum which, after all, is a place designed to offer a visual experience. How could someone without sight truly "experience" such a place?

In preparation for this group's visit, one of our education coordinators worked closely with a representative from the Braille Institute in order to prepare for their visit. I have to say, Eidelriz did a wonderful job. This group was composed of artists, so for our lesson we planned to discuss ancient painters. Eidelriz began the lesson with frescoes in the theater gallery. As she talked about ancient frescoes, she passed around "touchables" such as lime putty (in a plastic baggie), small examples of modern frescoes, paint brushes, and minerals for the group to handle. Touchables are what you might call Eidelriz's specialty, so she was eager to see how our touchable collection could help improve the museum experience for blind and low vision visitors.

Eidelriz in the museum with the group

The fresco portion of the lesson went off like gangbusters, and we moved on to my part of the lesson--discussing painted sculpture. I chose to talk about our little three-foot marble sculpture of Venus in the Basilica, because there are still traces of pigment within the folds of her drapery, and we know she was painted using the encaustic technique (mixing hot wax with powdered pigment). Not only was it a different medium, but it was a chance to discuss a different painting technique. The only significant difference in my conversations with blind and low vision visitors compared with sighted visitors is my effort to over-describe the object we are discussing. Once I described the statue, we passed around beeswax and discussed how it was used to make paint, and I told them more about the history of the sculpture. Also, when preparing for the lesson the day before, I had the idea of encouraging the group to touch the marble columns on either side of the statue. Those columns are just part of the architecture, so they are fair game for touching. By touching the columns, the group got a good idea of the cool, slippery smooth surface of marble and why encaustic painting might have been a good technique for the artist to use with that medium.

Thanks to the touchables, the time in the galleries went very well. Afterward the group gathered in the education studio to do some painting of their own. Eidelriz created a small workspace for each person, taping paper to the table and using masking tape to create a border they could feel framing the area they were to paint. Each person also received paint brushes and a palette (i.e. a paper plate). Each pile of paint was labeled with a different number of dots along the edge of the plate, enabling the blind painters to distinguish between the different colors.

Inside the Education Studio

At the end of their time in the studios, we asked some of the participants the question I posed earlier: How could someone without sight really experience a museum, a place primarily designed to be a visual experience? One woman in particular had some great things to say. She said everyone has a different way of learning and experiencing the world. "I can't see, but I'm still learning something. And maybe one day things will be better and we can feel everything."

A painting made by one of the participants

Saturday, October 10

Single Again

Well, kind of. A week ago Eric left for a month-long research trip abroad to study artifacts he will be discussing in his dissertation. Consequently, I have the month of October to myself. Now, I'm sure most women might feel a bit down at the thought of such a long separation, but I appreciate solitude and planned to make the most of it. That is, until Murphy's Law kicked in: I put Eric on a plane and then promptly got sick, falling victim to a vicious cold. Interacting with the public so much at work makes colds part and parcel to the whole teaching gig, but this one distinguished itself by robbing me of my voice about two days in. So not only can I not teach, but I can't call anyone to lament my circumstances. Of course I know I don't really have anything to complain about, but having no voice is very frustrating and this cold has put a serious crimp in my plans.

I'm sure my voice will return soon, but in the meantime I've been forced to slow down a little. It has been awhile since my last post because I've spent most of my spare time these past few weeks working on a book proposal and writing a sample chapter to accompany it. Nothing may come of it, but the concept has been met with some interest. The idea was inspired by my teaching experiences in the museum and my love of ancient history. If I ever have news to share on that score, I promise to go into more detail. Until then, keep your fingers crossed!

Friday, September 11


Since 2001, this day has always inspired reflection. Reflection on the events of a day I know I will never be able to forget and how it changed our world, but for me it has also become a time of personal reflection. Quite unintentionally, September has become a month marking the anniversaries of some of the most defining days of my adult life. On September 11, 2002, I signed the lease on my first apartment in Los Angeles, and so it's a day I remember as the beginning of my time in L.A. On September 24, 2006, I married Eric. September 9, 2007 was my first day at the Getty, which in my mind marks a significant advance in my professional career. So, as you can see, for me this is a month of anniversaries.

A lot can happen in seven years. People always ask if I feel like a city girl now that I've been here for a few years. "Not really," is my usual response. I have gotten used to this city, but I don't think I'll ever reach a point where I feel attached or sentimental about it. Rather, in the last seven years I've become something else: Someone who is just as comfortable cruising up Sunset Boulevard as the four mile road back home. Someone who has taken many a VIP group of big city executives or celebrities through major museum exhibitions but knows just as well what it's like working on the line at Donnelley's. I'm glad I've acquired that versatility, but moving away from one's roots can make them harder to hang on to, and that can be a depressing reality. Over the last seven years I have given that idea a lot of thought, and ultimately have taken a lesson from one of my favorite novelists, Sharyn McCrumb, who is a self-described Cosmic Possum. What in the bloody blazes is that, you ask? As McCrumb puts it,

"The term, coined by Tennessee poet Jane Hicks, (Blood and Bone Remember: Poems from Appalachia, Jesse Stuart Foundation Press, 2005) refers to people of Southern mountain heritage who have acquired modern sophistication without losing touch with their regional origins." She continues, "For Cosmic Possums culture is not an either-or proposition. The trick is to move into the future without letting go of the past, because if you lose your cultural identity, you have nothing to sustain you in the modern rootless world which lurches from one ephemeral trend to another."

Now, I come from the plains of Illinois, not mountains of southern Appalachia, but the point is well-taken. Living in L.A. can be a very homogenizing experience if you let it. People in the city tend to look with disdain or condescension at any region of rural America, and it can be very tempting to simply make yourself into the image of whatever "ephemeral trend" is currently raging. But you can choose to take a different perspective. One good thing about being in a city full of people who are from somewhere else is that you learn to value, take pride in, and appreciate the gift of the past and your own story of "Back where I come from..." That is the outlook I've chosen to take, and based on the frequency with which I'm asked "You're not from around here, are you?" I must be getting it right.

So if--regionally speaking--I'm not exactly a Cosmic Possum, what am I? In 1980 (the year I was born) the schoolchildren of Illinois voted to make the whitetailed deer the state animal. The whitetailed deer does seem appropriate--it's certainly the animal you're most likely to see tripping over the roads and through the cornfields of my native Cumberland County.

...Yeah, that'll do--I'm a Cosmic Whitetail.

Tuesday, September 1

Touchable Venus

The newly installed "touch statue", depicting the goddess Venus leaving the bath. It is a replica of a work by 19th century sculptor Antonio Canova.

Ever since the Villa reopened in 2006, the Education department has been working to develop a "touchables" program at the museum. The idea of touchables in art museums has been around for awhile, but it has gained real popularity in recent years. We have been incorporating touchables like paint brushes, sculpting tools, minerals, and so on in our daily teaching for some time now. This month we raised the touchables program to a whole new level with the installation of a "touch statue"--that is, a statue that visitors can touch. The "touch statue," of course, is not an artifact but a modern replica. Actually, if I want to be strictly accurate it is a replica of a replica of a replica. Did you get that? Yeah, me neither. When you say it out loud it sounds like you need a little flow chart to understand it. Let me attempt to clarify: The statue is a late 20th century CE replica of an 19th century CE copy of a 2nd century CE Roman copy of a 4th century BCE Greek sculpture of the goddess Aphrodite. In other words, we copied an 18th century sculpture that was a copy of an ancient Roman sculpture that was a copy of an ancient Greek sculpture.

I hope that makes sense. Anyhow, this touchable statue was recently installed in the West Belvedere at the end of the Outer Peristyle garden. Part of the fun of working in a museum is getting to see what goes on behind the scenes, so I thought I would share a little of it with you with a look at the installation of the new touch statue.

Venus in the stone laboratory, being stabilized & secured for her move to the West Belvedere.

Moving through an underground passage at the museum.

A careful ride down the ramp in the Outdoor Classical Theater.

Down another ramp into the Herb Garden.

Through the Herb Garden.

Finally, at the West Belvedere.

As you can see from the pictures, the Villa site isn't exactly designed for easy installation of objects outside of the museum galleries. Venus' journey to the West Belvedere was cautious and slow. Part of the motivation of placing her so far from the museum itself is to make sure visitors view this location as totally separate from the museum space, where touching is most definitely taboo. Keeping it out of the museum galleries helps to ensure that there is no (potentially confusing) exception to the strict "do not touch" policy inside the museum. The idea we hope to communicate is that the this is a space outside the museum where touching is allowed.

Now, maybe you are less cynical than I and this thought has not occurred to you up to this point, but I have to say I was pretty amused that a statue of a nude woman was chosen as a "touchable" statue. I mean, is it just me or is inviting people--ahem, especially men--to touch a statue of a naked woman just inviting trouble? (One word: Breasts.) And the fact that Venus happens to be posed in such a way to suggest she's trying to cover herself from the viewer only adds to my opinion that the choice of this Venus as the touch statue is just all sorts of wrong. I would love to say I trusted visitors not to be lewd, but given the irresistible combination of being able to touch and take pictures, I know better.

I'm sure this won't be the last you hear of the Villa's touch statue. Once the programming around it gets going there will be stories to share--of that I have no doubt.

Sunday, August 30

August Rush

Aren't these cute? It's beanie Amber and Eric--complete with glasses! Eric's sister, Heather, made them. The general consensus seems to be positive, although some people commented that they rarely see me wear a dress. True enough!

August has been a pretty busy month, filled with work and visits and birthdays. I can't believe that September is nearly here. The summer break from school groups at the museum ends all too quickly. Right now is the time for the annual Villa theater production. Each year we put on a different ancient play--this year is Aristophanes' "Peace," a rather ribald comedy. Last week I stepped outside of the office for a moment and discovered what appeared to be a huge pile of trash. This very un-Getty display of slovenliness was shocking at first, until I remembered the play and realized it must be a set prop of some sort.

Un-Getty display of trash

Both Eric and I celebrated our birthdays this month. My birthday was pretty low-key. My present from Eric was tickets to go see Reba in Nevada, but the concert isn't until next month. Plus, I worked all day--but I made Eric play MarioKart Wii with me that evening. MarioKart has been one of my favorite video games since it first came out when I was a kid. I find it's a great stress-reliever, racing virtually around the track like mad, flinging shells and banana peels and bob-ombs at the other drivers to knock them off the track. I have as much fun with it now as I ever did, so I guess in some ways I haven't changed much in the last fifteen years or so!

This month also saw the premiere of my friend Kara's new special series, "Out of Egypt" on the Discovery Channel. The show does a bit of comparative archaeology, each episode starting with a cultural phenomenon we see in ancient Egyptian culture and then looking at similar practices in other cultures around the world. You could certainly argue that I am biased, but I think it's great to see a legitimate scholar produce a program for a popular audience. To learn more about it, check out her website. If you missed it on Discovery, you can download the first two episodes of the series now at iTunes. The last time I checked, the first episode ("Flesh and Bone") was free. There are four more episodes to come, but air dates are yet to be determined.

I feel like this month was over as soon as it began. I can hardly believe September begins next week--it's almost as if someone hit the fast-forward button through the summer. Clearly the Romans were on to something when they said tempus fugit.

Thursday, August 20

Quick Trip

Recently I was able to make a quick trip home to see friends and family. As always, it was good to be home. Naturally I arrived home just in time for the first serious wave of heat and humidity all summer. Figures! Although it was only a short visit, I was pleased that I had the chance to see quite a bit of family. Time always seems so short, and I guess it is, so I'm happy that in this case I was able to make the most of it.

Cousins: me, Lacy, Heather, and Erin

I will be home again at some point around the holidays, but exactly when is yet to be determined. For now it's back to work and the usual routine. Eric and I have birthdays within days of each other, so this coming week we'll be celebrating. I think we'll be going out to dinner for Eric's birthday, and mine will be celebrated a couple of days early with the premiere of Kara's "Out of Egypt" series on Monday. I'm planning an evening of friends, beer, pizza, MarioKart Wii, and "Out of Egypt." Sounds like a good time to me!

Erin and I

With Mom and Dad

Friday, July 24

A Very Special Top Ten

Interacting with the public on a daily basis can be a pleasure or a pain. So much of the pain side of things could be eliminated if more people practiced a little courtesy and consideration. Recently I decided to attempt to define proper museum behavior. Below is the list* that emerged from my exasperation--

Top Ten Ways to Not be a Pain in a Museum Educator's Ass:

10. Do not stand in front of someone in a wheelchair. Just because someone is in a wheelchair does not mean he or she is a piece of furniture.

9. Do not assume your speaker is a docent volunteer or a student.

8. Do not ask the speaker, "So, is this a good tour?"

7. Do not interrupt or ask a question in an attempt to show the group what you think you know. We are not interested in contests and will be happy to simply take your word for it that you know everything.

6. Do not arrive late and then ask for a recap when the speaker asks if there are any questions.

5. Do not ask about other objects in the gallery when they have nothing to do with the subject of the conversation.



2. If you are listening to an educator in the galleries, listen--do not stick your nose in a label and read. Chances are the educator knows more than the label does.

1. DO say thank you when the tour ends.

Keep in mind this is only the top ten--but it will get you off to a good start.

*With thanks to my colleague, Kristen, who helped me decide which items truly belong in the top ten. The sarcasm, alas, is all mine.