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!