Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Audience-Contributed an Audience Member

I’ve been lucky enough to work on more exhibitions than I can count – as a staff member, as an intern, as a consultant, and through collaboratives helping other institutions. Yet after 22 years in the museum business, I’ve just participated in my first exhibition as one of the crowd – a contributing audience member.
Here in London, I’m a member of Stitch – a group of knitters that are a far cry from a bunch of grannies. We participate in public art knit tagging, parade around town raising funds for prostate cancer wearing knit moustaches, and celebrate knit in public day with panache. I haven’t been able to make it to many meetings but always look forward to reading the weekly email as it’s always funny and sometimes contains great patterns (this week, a link to a wonderful tiny alligator pattern
So when I read that London’s Science Museum had teamed up with Stitch on the new Identity Exhibition that they were opening at the end of June, I was all eyes (and ears and knitting needles). A knit museum project has my name all over it.
The call went out for knitted self-portraits to be displayed in the exhibition. Now, the wording was a little vague – it definitely sounded to me like there was a call out for little self-portraits that would be a permanent part of the exhibition. I got quite excited about participating, which then rubbed off on my daughters, aged 6 and 9 at the time. How fabulous, I thought, a lasting legacy in one of London’s major museums that would last (for at least a couple of years) after we’ve moved back to the United States.
So, on a train from London to Brighton, the knitting needles came out and our naked knit selves started to take shape. I knit the first doll and then thought about how to size the rest. The first one ended up being the 9 year old and I made one with a slightly longer body for me. This didn’t look too different to me, so the 6 year old ended up with shorter arms and legs. They look a bit like freaky aliens in their naked form, but here we are.
 So then it came time to make the clothes. Unfortunately, I’m not much at sewing. The knit group suggested that it’s easiest to make clothes from felt (rather than knitting small clothes) so I went that route. I almost always wear jeans and had just made some cut-offs, so I started to sew my mini-me a pair of jeans. I made the mistake of trying to sew them inside out so the seams wouldn’t show but then couldn’t get them right-side out since the legs were too narrow. I also had several problems with shirts since proportionately, the heads are enormous and the bodies’ quite stout for the skinny little arms and legs. In the end, what I thought would take me an hour took a bunch of days with big breaks in between.
Of course, the girls wanted to do their own self portraits. So Laila picked a yellow shirt for her doll (her favorite color) and I agreed to embroider her initial on the front. As we all know, doing something with children takes about six times as long as it does to do it by yourself (and comes out 6 times more creatively)…and this project was no different. But Laila did a great job and found googly eyes and a stick on mouth for her self-portrait and used those rather than sew on features. She also decided that both she and I needed stickers for shoes. Here’s Laila with her doll:
Finally, our two were done and it was time for Francesca (age 9) to do her doll. She picked shorts and a red T shirt (also asked for an embroidered initial) but we had some problems with hair. While I had yellow yarn and this crazy black/grey curly yarn, I didn’t have any brown. Francesca looked through all the yarn and decided that she wanted red hair since she just liked it – a little bit of a surrealistic self-portrait, but that seemed fine. She also wanted her doll to have her mouth at an angle, which she thinks looks cool and sassy but her little sister came in and wanted to know why Francesca’s doll was angry. We had fun with some of the details. Laila loves fairies, so she gave herself fairy wings and a wand. I’m half French and am holding some baguettes. Here are the final dolls:
 At this point, we are almost to the deadline of when our knitted selves need to be in East London. The final email came through…..and I learn that the knit selves would only be on display for the adults opening on the evening of Wednesday, June 30th. Sad, but I figure we’ve put in the work, so I spend about four hours on several underground subways and trains and hand delivered the dolls to the address in East London on the due date.
My husband and I don’t have a very active social life, but June 30th happens to be one night we’ve gotten a sitter and are going out to meet a friend downtown so we knew we wouldn’t be able to see the display. Plus, the evening event was adults only, so the girls were sad not to see their dolls proudly displayed at the Museum. But we were proud of our dolls, might as well be part of the action and how many self-portraits will they get, anyway?
Well, 259 to be exact – some from Australia, Abu Dhabi, Israel and all reaches of London. I didn’t make it to the exhibition, but my fellow knitters didn’t let me down and posted lots of pictures. Here’s a photo of the case and a close up of me and Francesca (Laila is just to the left of the Lucite box and out of site from this angle). Angry Francesca is up front and center and I’m behind to the left in the replica blue hat I wear around all winter.
And here are all 259 of us.

And what did I/we get out of all of this? A definite appreciation for all the work that the public does when contributing to something they know will be seen in an exhibition. My family easily spent 15 hours knitting, planning, cutting and sewing our little selves and ours aren’t nearly as ambitious as some. I am truly amazed and inspired by some of the self portraits contributed for their creativity, workmanship, and sense of humor.

The Stitch folks also worked really hard and catalogued all dolls and labeled them all uniformly. The staff at the Science Museum assured that there was a case up and running and provided help with setting up the display. All and all, a great effort for something that in the end was a small piece of one special night.
Even though my mini-me is no longer there (but will be featured at upcoming Stitch events around London – we’ll keep you posted) I will be going to see the identity exhibit this week. Not only am I curious about the exhibition, but I do feel connected to it and to the organization as I think this was a pretty funky and cool partnership for the Science Museum to explore. I love exhibits that meld science and art and architecture and craft and am glad to see that happening in the city around me. Imagine how connected I would feel if my mini-me was permanent? I’d be emailing all my friends and sending them to the Museum to check me and my girls out!
More about the project can be found at the stitch blog.  Check out the self-portrait in process of knitting her/himself, dolls with glasses and stuffed animals, and even one in roller skates (keep in mind, each doll is approximately 6 inches tall). And be prepared to pull out the stops and participate in an exhibition coming to a Museum near you!


Elizabeth said...

I was very interested to read about the experience of contributing content from the audience viewpoint. Lesson to the museum: leave the mini-me's on display for some period of time! Your girls would have been thrilled to see "themselves" in a museum, and it might have changed their commitment to museums for the rest of their lives. That's part of the point of audience-contributed content--this was a missed opportunity!

Janet Petitpas said...

I would have loved to see them at the science museum for longer. But I have faith that the Stitch folks will take good care of them and that they will be on display elsewhere in some fun contexts. Definitely would have caused us to have further visits to the Science Museum, though.

San Francisco Mobile Museum said...

At the San Francisco Mobile Museum, we also write a blog post about each piece. So after the exhibit ends, it lives on in perpetuity... virtually.

Jennie said...

I agree, it seems a massive shame they were only available for one night, adults only. This would have been a great opportunity for school groups etc too.

And what is with this museo/knitting link?? Seems lots of museum types also love knitting!

bayareadiscoverymuseum said...

Love it! What fantastic creativity - and how engaged your family was in making their self-portraits! This kind of program could also have a great virtual component as well, extending the reach well beyond the physical museum! And I've shared it around with your former fellow colleagues from the Bay Area Discovery Museum