4B - Thursday, September 29, 2011
The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com
The Exhibit Museum of Natural History was founded under 19th-century ideals.
From Page 1B
preoccupied with authenticity and guar-
anteeing that one object could be repre-
sentative of the whole - among others.
The University's Exhibit Museum of
Natural History stands as testament to
these 19th century ideals - the skeleton of
an ancient sea creature hangingtenuously
off the ceiling, chasing its prey; a mag-
nificent diorama of a reptile-like animal
prowling the lands; a display case crowd-
ed with specimens taken directly off the
pages of Audubon's "Birds of America."
Director of Education Kira Berman refers
to the museum's organization as a "great
chain of being," with the primordial tri-
lobites at the bottom of the chain and the
Planetarium and space-age discoveries
peering benevolently from the top.
At the entrance of the museum's Hall of
Evolution sits a massive hunk of petrified
wood, one of Berman's favorite objects in
"We use it td talk about the process of
fossilization," she said. "How water car-
ries the minerals into the tissue of the tree
while the tissue is still there, fills into the
interstitial spaces and then eventually the
wood itself rots away - leaving only the
Of course, not all object collections
consist of decayed skeletons and hol-
lowed-out rocks. At the Matthaei Botani-
cal Gardens and the Nichols Arboretum,
the living and blooming flowers, fruits
and vegetables take center stage. The
phrase "botanical garden" hasa monastic,
medicinal bent to it - Mendel's pea plants
spring to mind - and indeed, the first
area of its kind sprung from the medieval
"physic gardens" that doctors maintained
to treat their patients. While nowadays
the term has atrophied into something
with more of a public face, the plants
inside certainly haven't.
"It's like a living museum," said Prof.
Bob Grese, director of the Botanical Gar-
dens and the Arboretum.
For Grese, the purpose of the museum
always has been to educate the public on
the greater concerns of plant conserva-
tion and maintenance, whether through
an interactive display of edible cocoa
plants or a stunning recreation-of a desert
"I think people have always been
dependent on plants for food, for medi-
cine, for all kinds of things," Grese
explained. "Today, people don'trecognize
their connection quite as readily. They're
not as involved in collecting plants that
they might use for medicine, or they buy
food in grocery stores and don't necessar-
ily connect with growing it. So in some
ways that becomes a real opportunity or
challenge for us in the botanical gardens
to tryto re-forge that connection." The Matthei Botanical Gardens are turning their
About six miles southwest from the
Botanical Gardens, another museum is "All that is going on in your head," Sil-
striving to reconstruct society's connec- verman explained. "Because objects have
tion to its past, but through materials. The no intrinsic meaning or value, it's always
Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry - a place ascribed to the object by people."
housed within the University's Dental Of course, the rarity of an object is not
School but supported entirely by private always its greatest selling point. It can
donors - strives to propagate the history often be the power of a story that makes
of dentistry to the public, one largely root- the item so transformative.
ed in the evolution of materials and tech- "The thing I like most (about working
nology. Director Shannon O'Dell narrates in the dentistry museum) is the research
a tale of self-sustainable dentists falling - investigating an individual that we're
victim to larger corporations: companies trying to tell their story," O'Dell said.
consolidating and buyingup smaller com- "Where I'm really digging through the
panies; and the movement from rubber archives trying to find out about them -
and ivoryto plastics, resins and acrylics. that's the most fun."
"That's the same thing with a lot of The quality of aura as a requisite for a
technologies. The same thing has hap- museum is one challenged at the Botani-
pened, all across the board," O'Dell said. cal Gardens. As you walk through the
Regardless of the collections they Gardens' many nature paths, the plants
maintain, the directors all look upon their along the boundary brush against your
roles as a sort of stewardship between the legs, almost forcing you to interact with
public and the objects they oversee. them. One of the institution's most prized
"We play a curatorial role in plants," features is the Gaffield Children's Gar-
Grese said of the Botanical Gardens and den, a fairylike area with exhibits ranging
the Arboretum. "Just like (art museums) from an edible flower demonstration to
are taking care of individual works of art, a series of lilting bells that evoke Keats's
we're taking care of gardens, individual Grecian lyre to slabs of concrete taken off
plants or natural areas." the roof of the Betsy Barbour Residence
Hall on which visitors can make etchings.
Aura, authenticity and context A botanical garden's authenticity is
synonymous with another cultural buzz-
Perhaps most paramount to your expe- word: endangered. The mission of a
rience in a museum is the idea that the botanical garden is more about propaga-
object in front of you is one unreplicated tion than preservation - to spread rare
in any other place or time. species among areas that have lost the
"I've had experiences in museums capability of sustainingthem.
where I've picked up an object, a tool that The differences between the role of
was made 10,000 years ago by a person," an art museum and a science museum is
Silverman said. "To hold that in your more difficult to articulate.
hand, and to say, 'I'm holding something "I think the main difference is that
that was made by somebody 10,000 years we're looking at context for the objects
ago,' that object has ... that specialness that we treat," Berman said of the Exhibit
about it." Museum, after several attempts to answer
Museums have evolved techniques to the question. "We're looking at what the
fabricate this special aura. Oftentimes, objects tell us, whereas in an art museum
visitors are not permitted to touch the you're looking more at the form."
objects. Obscured from view in thick Context does seem to play a larger part
glass boxes, the items are separated by in the interpretation of educationally
large white spaces, the perimeter roped minded museums than it does in more
off - giving rise to the ultimate aesthetic aesthetically driven ones.
contemplation. Berman recalled a time when a differ-
But what is the real definition of ent kind of context took center stage. In
"aura?" Does the object itself exude some medieval bestiaries (illustrated compen-
sort of a magical quality, or is it something diums of the natural life of an animal) if a
artificially derived? person were tolook up the information for
fox, he would find not only the biological
histoiy of the fox, but also the symbolism
of the fox, and poetry about foxes -all of
which were considered parts of the whole
of what the object was.
"So there was a time when the part
that things play was much more interwo-
ven with the things themselves," Berman
n it Silverman contended withthe question
by turning to personal experience. In his
own research, he works with the visual
cultures of Africa. Many objects he works
with are found in both art museums and
cultural history museums. He has found
in many cases the object itself doesn't
matter, but the way people have classified
the object and the value and meaning they
give to it vary depending on the context it
is placed in.
Berman wants to return the Exhibit
Museum back to a time when cultural sto-
TODD NEEDLE/Daily ries could be told once again, and for con-
ad history of the field. text to reclaim its mythological quality.
efforts toward increasing sustainability.
"I can continue to love the fact that
early settlers in this country thought
that mastodon skulls were the skulls of
Cyclops," she said. "I continue to teach
that during (docent training sessions),
saying, 'Here's a story that can show you
the different ways of looking at that one
"I think that we're beginning to be able
to tell those kinds of stories again - to be
more inclusive, rather than saying, 'Well,
that's not objective, so we can't display
A new direction
Recently, museums have been under-
going a radical change.
"Whereas originally museums were
about things, there's been a shift in think-
ing that museums are really about people.
They're social institutions," Silverman
Fundamentally, a person will visit a
museum with his or her own individual
way of thinking, and as a result that per-
son experiences what's offered up at the
museum differently from anyone else
there - in spite of the relative stasis of the
Originally, however, the absolute model
for a museum was for an authority on the
topic, the curator, to offer up his own nar-
rative on the exhibit to a passive audience.
To Silverman, it resembled a monologue:
"Here it is, take it or leave it."
Now, museums have gained reputation
as more dialogical spaces, with the audi-
ence, the curator and museum conversing
with each other - a relationship con-
stantly in flux.
"They're becoming places where
exhibits can be multi-vocal," Berman
said. "There's not just one voice of author-
ity and there can be more forums for dis-
Of course, this assembly of voices is not
without its critics. Especially within the
practice of digitalization - museums put-
ting up the entirety of their collections on
the Internet in an effort to become more
accessible to the public - people question
whether the physical institution will lose
some of its hold on the public audience.
"There's been a lot of dust that's been
kicked up in the air as a result of (digi-
talization)," Silverman said. "There are
some people that are running around like
Chicken Little saying, 'The sky is falling,
the sky is falling, museums are extinct,
nobody's going to want to come anymore
because it's all available on the Web.'
"But I'm a really firm believer in the
object, the original object - what we refer
to as the 'aura' of the original. And the fact.
that that is somethingthat will ensure the
For Grese, maintaining the Arboretum
and Botanical Gardens has helped him
to understand people's relationship with
"For a lot of people, having a place to go
out and understand plants, to reflect on
their relationship with the natural world
is important," he said. "It's not just con-
serving nature by itself but showing how
people relate to it."
Grese's efforts for the museum's future
are rooted in sustainability. The Michi-
gan Solar House (otherwise known as the
MiSo* house), an entry in the 2005 Solar
Decathlon and designed by the Univer-
sity's Taubman College of Architecture
and Urban Planning, sits on one side of
the Botanical Gardens. Within the house,
all the appliances are powered by the sun-
light outside and the plants that frame the
. Over time, he is also trying to reduce
the areas where the lawn is mowed.
"The goal is to get to a point ... where we
won't do as much planting, a buffer that
provides better habitat value," he said. "A
mowed lawn is notcvery diverse. The taller
grasses and blooming plants have more of
a habitat value and food value for butter-
flies and bird species."
To create a place where new objects
spring forward from old ones is an inter-
esting consideration - a permutation of
the concept of "aura."
All the directors admit that running
their respective museums has influenced
their experiences of visitingone.
"We joke around inthe museumstudies
program, that once you've been through
this course, museums will not be the same
for you," Silverman said. "Before, you go
into a museum of art and you go to see the
art. Now ... your experience of looking at
the art is going to be competing with you
thinking about, 'OK, well, how are they
fixing the light?' and, 'What kinds of col-
ors are they using on the wall?' and also
to look at how other people are engaging
with the exhibits."
Berman described herself as "jaded."
"I look with more of a professional eye
than spme people," she said. "I look at
things that people don't see.
. "But, when Igo with my six-and-a-half
year old to a museum, I'm just like any-
one else. I think that museums are places
where we form memories and we find
inspiration. That's what the word means,
Where to find the
1150 Beal Ave.
Exhibit Museum of Natural
1109 Geddes Ave.
Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
434 South State St.
Matthaei Botanical Gardens
1800 N. Dixboro Rd.
1610 Washington Hts.
Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry
1011 N. University Ave.
University of Michigan
Museum of Art (UMMA)
525 South State St.
The Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry tells the bro
From Page 3B
"For the first seven years (I wore a
headscarf), it was about matching my
hijab to my outfit," LSA senior and Mus-
lim Student Association president Eman
Abdelhadi said. "For the next seven
years, it was about matching my outfit to
Abdelhadi has been wearing hijab
since she was nine years old and is a fan
of the colorful silky scarves she finds
during her visits to Egypt.
"They're just so gorgeous," she said. "I
tend to wear more solid colors, so I love
just wearing a pretty normal outfit that's
just solid colors ... and then having the
hijab be the thing that pops out. Every-
one's looking at it, so might as well make
Abdelhadi is used to getting atten-
tion everywhere when she wears hijab in
public, although it doesn't bother her as
much in Ann Arbor.
"There is a sense of being different and
being stared at," she said. "The reason I
know this is because I travel to the Mid-
dle East relatively frequently, and when I
travel, it's a different feeling. At first, it's
hard to pinpoint, but then I realize it's
because people aren't staring at me when
I walk in a room. I'm used to (walking)
into a room and everyone (looking) at me.
... There's sort of the lingering gaze."
Both Ali and Alhawary also pointed
out the misconceptions surrounding the
practice of hijab and the thought that it
intrinsically oppresses women. Ali said
she has had trouble finding work at hone
in Norway because some people refuse
to employ wearers of hijab. Alhawary
argues that it is important to separate
the religious foundation of hijab from
its cultural contexts - the other stricter
practices that sometimes occur in con-
junction with it. He said the intent of the
religious ruling can be equally misun-
derstood by Muslims and non-Muslims
because it is observed in countries where
policies are employed that affect the lives
of women for political reasons rather
than religious ones.
Despite its potential to be miscon-
strued, Ali and Abdelhadi are proud to
wear hijab on their own terms and repre-
sent their religion in a positive way.
"I really consider myself a Muslim
feminist in a' way, because I believe in
the power of women," Ali said. "I don't
believe we should do anything for men."
Abdelhadi mentioned another impor-
tant perk: "You know, it's true that when
you have a bad hair day, it's really nice to
Muslim Student Association president Eman Abdelhadi shows off her collection of col