Class #13: Fossil Gallery and Diego Rivera Pan American Unity Mural –November 14, 2019

Class Summary #13 April 18, 2019

The theme for the day “Museums for All: A College Setting” used activities and observations at two exhibitions at City College of San Francisco’s Ocean Campus to focus on free spaces offering cultural enrichment. Here’s the promised link to other objects and installations on the Ocean Campus.

PART 1: THE FOSSIL GALLERY

We convened class in The Fossil Gallery, the first section of City College’s “Story of Time and Life” Exhibition which—across four floors in the Science Hall—explores the evolution of the universe, the solar system, and life on earth. 

Dinosaur collecting has provided evidence of biological evolution. But in addition to sometimes serving as a cover for spying, smuggling, resource exploration and exploitation, it had at one time also served as a bolster for Social Darwinism, a racist practice that incorrectly posited a hierarchy of human “races.” Since one of you raised a question about how the dinosaurs–though innocent themselves, of course–became embroiled in this story, I want to refer you to an excerpt from our reading.

Social Darwinism mis-appropriated Charles Darwin’s proven principles of evolutionary biology, aka “survival of the fittest,” to promote racist ideologies. In particular, Henry Fairfield Osborn, a discredited paleontologist, “and his followers sought to use systematic arrangements of specimens to prove the ‘spiritual, intellectual, moral and physical’ superiority of ‘the Nordic race’.” Those systematic arrangements often began with the dinosaurs, which is how they became unfairly implicated in this racist pseudo-science. (Schwarzer, Riches, Rivals and Radicals, 84)

Despite some of the nefarious history of dinosaur collecting, the preserved remains of dinosaurs have provided natural history and science museum visitors with enriching educational experiences. 

At the City College Fossil Gallery each of you focused on one of the five specimens (including fish and dinosaur bones and footprints of the elephant’s older relative) and then talked with a partner(s) about what got your attention. 

In your debriefing a couple of you raised how some of the information in the exhibition was out of date. Together you brainstormed ways that the Science departments could implement low cost ways to keep signage up to date: QR codes and/or easily replaceable signage under glass. Video screens would entail more cost in the short-run but less cost in the long run.

The vastness of time and the intriguing designs of our extinct ancestors added an element of awe to the start of our afternoon. We owe much to the genius of City College faculty, staff, and students who were smart and swift enough to gather these treasures from the California Academy of Sciences and install them in Science Hall, the College’s iconic 1940 building.

PART 2: Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity Mural

“Intro to Museum Studies” alum and Pan American Unity Mural docent, Helen Pinto, presented a rich multi-layered analysis that melded art, history, and politics. She explained that the mural was part of the  “Art in Action” program of the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE, 1940), which invited various artists to create work in a gallery/studio space at the Treasure Island site while fair visitors could observe their process. Timothy Pflueger, an organizer of the fair and City College’s original architect, invited Rivera to San Francisco to create the mural. Rivera used the fresco technique where the artist paints into wet plaster. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Federal Art Project (FAP) funded the mural.

Though the Rivera mural was intended for a proposed “grand library” at City College, the war effort required concrete and steel, which stopped construction of the library. By the time the more modest but still substantial Rosenberg Library replaced the “temporary” digs in Cloud Hall, in the early 1990s, the Rivera mural had been removed from storage and installed in the Diego Rivera Theater (1961). 

Helen pointed out that Rivera was interested in an internationalist political perspective and so honored not only the indigenous cultures and art forms of ancient Mexico but also its legacies in contemporary Mexico as well as the technological advances of the 20th century in the United States, which included his fascination with cinema. That interest gave the mural its official name: “The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent.” In addition to indigenous cultures, he honored women (partially because he thought the mural was going to a women’s college), workers, and freedom struggles.

I am glad that I can respond to one of the blog comments and look forward to more blog entries soon. It’s true that Rivera was a communist and would have critiqued the exploitation of workers, but he was also enamored of modern technology and machinery. So, like most complex personalities, he contained contradictions. Henry Ford was a notorious anti-Semite, but his son Edsel Ford commissioned Rivera’s Detroit Art Institute fresco cycle, while Rivera, as Helen pointed out, believed strongly in fighting against fascism in Europe. 

I also wanted to address different interpretations of one of the images on the panel to the left below. If you follow down from Hitler holding the globe, you will see what is definitely a weapon; however, Helen saw it as a representation of a breast, similar to what you see to the right of the large hand (see image below to the right). I think it is entirely possible that Rivera may have been repeating (as Helen pointed out he was wont to do) the theme of death and life that you see in the human head that is half skull and half flesh to the right of the “breast” image in this panel and behind Dudley Carter working on the Ram sculpture. Rivera depicts Coatlicue, goddess of Death and the Earth. I actually do not think these two interpretations contradict one another but instead offer us a representation of the power of life and death, creation and destruction. Chicana scholar Gloria Anzalduá explains the power of Coatlicue: “Coatlicue depicts the contradictory. In her figure, all the symbols important to the religion and philosophy of the Aztecs are integrated. Like Medusa, the Gorgon, she is a symbol of the fusion of opposites: the eagle and the serpent, heaven and the underworld, life and death…beauty and horror” (Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999 [1987], 69).

You can read more about the Pan American Mural here.  Be sure also to click on the beta version of the new website if you want to dig deeper.

As you learned, the current plan is to install the mural in the front lobby of the planned Performing Arts and Education Center (PAEC). With a large glass window passersby will be able to view the mural 24/7, including dramatic lighting at night. Also, the new location would give viewers the necessary distance to view the mural properly. 

You also learned that the mural will be on loan to the SF MOMA for one of its free/public spaces starting October 2020. When it returns to City College in 2023, the PAEC will have been built on Frida Kahlo Way, so we can tell visitors “Take Frida Kahlo Way to the Diego Rivera mural.”

A focus on Rivera’s honoring of indigenous artistic production provides another thread in the discussion of re-enlivening museums and reconciling their often shameful history with a more honest and truthful representation of indigenous culture, which brought us to our next stop.

PART 3: Debriefing in Creative Arts 218

Land Acknowledgment

We returned to our tour with Carmen Mahood at the de Young, where we had raised the issue of Land Acknowledgment at the de Young. I recently met with Carmen, and she was pleased to show me these photographs depicting the Land Acknowledgment practice at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology.

Carmen raised the idea of not only developing a Land Acknowledgment practice at the de Young but also marking the presence of the Ramaytush Ohlone peoples elsewhere in Golden Gate Park. Clearly, this practice would need to involve Native people in discussion with museum staff. As City College deepens its own relationship to the Ramaytush Ohlone peoples in the process of seeking to develop a Land Acknowledgment policy, it’s entirely possible that the College’s Museum Studies program could become a partner in this process at the de Young. Always, it is key that these practices do not become empty gestures but rather living documents and practices that address brutal legacies and the ongoing resilience of Native peoples.

Feedback

I asked you to offer ideas on how we could make the de Young experience more effective. There seemed to be a consensus that you appreciated the docent tour but would also like more time for personal exploration. Based on this valuable feedback, I am contemplating a reconfiguring of the next semester’s experience at the de Young which would continue to include an introduction to the free spaces and highlights of the galleries of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania but would incorporate your suggestions. 

Museums for All Slide Presentation

This presentation raises a key goal of the class to “marry” community engagement with accessibility. It is not helpful if museum staff create engaging exhibitions but poor and working class people can’t get inside. And it does no good if museums are free all day every day but what’s inside does not interest visitors, or worse, insults them. (You can review the slide presentation in Class Resources.)

Beyoncé and Jay-Z at The Louvre

The “Apesh*t” video provoked a lively discussion about the intentions of Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Like the Obamas, the Carters (Beyoncé and Jay-Z) can now not only enter but also command spaces they would not have felt welcome in before they had made their respective marks in politics and music. 

Some of you liked the video a lot; others, not so much. And some, not at all. Consider how your race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, and other social identity markers might influence your reaction to the video. Be sure to factor in your own personal taste in music and popular culture.

Meanwhile, please make sure you consider Lisa Ragbir’s praise and critique of the video, which she claims “…is important because people of color rarely have the opportunity to claim such spaces, but it also perpetuates the dangerous notion that art is a luxury.” Most important, she argues, is that museums become more accessible for working class people who cannot afford the current high admission prices in most museums. Consider re-reading Ragbir: “Can Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Louvre Video Change Perceptions of Who Belongs in Museums?” 

Though Ragbir sees value in the Carters (Beyoncé and Jay-Z) and the Obamas—people of color being able to claim spaces like The Louvre, she questions seeing art as luxury. “…[W]hat happens,” she says, “if we believe that these spaces can only be claimed by people of color if they are the Obamas or the Carters?” Instead she talks about exactly what we’ve been discussing all semester:

A 2010 study by the American Alliance of Museums found that while people of color will make up 46% of the American population by 2033, they are on track to only represent 9% of museums’ core audiences. However, museums like the High Museum of Art in Atlanta are trying to buck this trend. Earlier this year, that institution reported that it had tripled its number of visitors of color (now comprising 45% of the museum’s total visitors) in just two years. How? By showcasing the work of under-represented artists, adjusting admission fees, diversifying its staff and volunteers, and adopting the slogan: “Here for you.” (emphasis mine)

As much as the art critic in me would like to have spent more time analyzing the video itself and what I see as its critiques of racism, what’s most interesting for our purposes, I think, is the very fact of our dialogue and disagreements. So please blog, especially if you held back in class.

Do we continue with the patchwork of free days, free evenings, programs at some museums for very low income people, Discover and Go cards, etc., or do we do raise taxes on the wealthy and fund museums for all?

Leslie

Next Thursday, November 21, we will meet at the Downtown Campus in Room 325, which is a computer lab. We will walk over at 3:45 p.m. to begin a tour at 4:00 p.m. at The Contemporary Jewish Museum.

HOMEWORK:

– Blog: Field trip reflection.

– Research & Development – on-going work on final project.

– Explore the Exploratorium website

– Explore exhibitions at The Contemporary Jewish Museum

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