The Role of the Museum when Democracy is Under Seige (yes, today qualifies)

In 1941 Americans – both military and civilian – were busy preparing for their inevitable inclusion in the Second World War. The opening essay in the American Museum of Natural History’s annual report for 1940 succinctly, and powerfully, argued for museum’s role in defending democracy. In the Report of the President, presumably written by F. Trubee Davison, began by detailing the terror spreading through Europe, fueled by ignorance. That paragraph was succeeded by the following:

“The struggle of the democracies against the dictatorships is not only a fight for freedom to live, a fight to satisfy physical and emotional hunger, but it is just as importantly at present, and even more importantly for the future, a fight for the freedom to think.

In this struggle the museum stands at the forefront of the institutions designed to satisfy intellectual hunger. The museum is not limited like the public school to the young. The museum is not dedicated like the college or university solely to the educated. The museum does not, like the library, serve only the literate. The museum deals with all people on all levels and can and does reach out to meet the intellectual hunger of all people of every degree on all levels of intellectual attainment. It is a democracy’s most important agency for the spread of honest understanding of life.”

I read this on a day when I also encountered stories about the rise of dictatorship and government corruption around the world, a measles outbreak fed by misinformation about vaccines, and of Americans preparing to endure more weather extremes exacerbated by climate change, even as they misunderstand that connection by conflating the two.

This is a time of horrors, both real and imagined and I have seen so many deal with their fears and what they perceive as the ignorance of others by using mockery, derision, judgement, and the aptly named repugnancy of trolling. That response is a large part of why I’ve removed myself from social media. How am I supposed to engage people so empowered by their own sense of being right? How can you reason with people who value “being right” more than they care about “getting it right?”

My aversion to the growing judgemental-superiority-complex is beautifully explained in the excerpt above, which was written 80 years ago as fascism tore a gash through the globe that still hasn’t healed. I was raised in museums, in more ways than one. As a result, I’ve worked in places where EVERYONE comes to learn. I’ve taught evangelicals wearing large wooden crucifixes and queer atheists. I’ve taught people rich, poor, and those navigating the volatile middle. I’ve taught conservatives and progressives, immigrants and Natives, non-English speakers and those who only speak English, and all of the races that racists have demanded that we recognize.

In short, in museums, I have learned that “intellectual hunger” is found in all of us, and that truth is liberating and can bring joy. Not that some truths aren’t hard and challenging, but when communicated with respect and honor for both honesty and the person with whom you’re speaking, they can heal more than they hurt. Where the hunger for truth meets honest facts are the wellsprings of democracy. All else is some form of anchor dragging us back to the authoritarian fascism that lurks in the shadows waiting to feed on fear, shame, and ignorance. The authoritarian fascism that now thrives in the open; demanding that all our bravery, love, and truth be mobilized in opposition.

I have a shirt in my drawer with the phrase “Museums are not neutral” that I plan to wear once my behaviors meet my knowledge and I lose a few pounds. This is true in ways both good and bad. When museum professionals attempt to be neutral, they remove facts from context and leave them open to be manipulated for evil. Museums have certainly been manipulated for evil, so we can’t pretend that they are somenow immune to reproducing lies. Our diligence and pursuit of truth must be constant, both with our institutions and ourselves. When museum professionals embrace hard realities, and resolve to fight them with openness and truth, then they can meet the challenges of our day, and those past. More importantly, they – we – can be a model for others to do the same. After all, in this day and age, what’s more radical than truly giving someone the freedom to think?

Dead animals, birth canals, and beating hearts: Reflections on my first 27 years of informal science education

My first real introduction to what it means to be a museum educator was road kill. Like, an animal dead on the highway. Road kill.

As I remember, it was 1991, the summer before my senior year of high school and the second of three summers I spent working in the Invertebrate Paleontology department at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH). Joe Hannibal, the curator of invertebrate paleo, was leading a group to a limestone quarry in nearby Toledo, Ohio to collect Megalomoidea cadadensis, or “beef heart” fossils. Along the way, one of the museum’s Science Resource Center – I think it was Barbara Schwimmer – screamed for our van to stop.[1] She had seen road kill that, in her expert opinion, could potentially be worth collecting. The driver stopped, and to my delight and disgust, she got out, gathered the smushed remains of some animal, and hopped back in to trumpet her success. That animal was later taxidermied, and likely made its way to some classroom in the form of a traveling diorama. Little did I know, that moment was essentially the guidepost for the rest of my life. (Nancy Howell, Barbara Schwimmer, Robert Segedi, Bob Bartolotta)

Cleveland_Museum_Natural_History
I basically lived at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in high school. I can’t overstate how much it changed my life.

When I think back on my time at the CMNH the group of staff educators that I worked with and saw, including people like Barbara, Robert Segedi, Nancy Howell, and Bob Bartolotta, are remarkably important figures. Of course, no one looms larger than Joe Hannibal whose warmth, humor, and patience drew me back to the museum time and again. So too did the joy I got out of descending into the basement each day to wander through fossil collections, going to outcrops to search for samples, and just being at the museum. But there were so many amazing experiences that happened because of the museum’s educators. Like one day, the summer students like me were gathered into the Science Resource Center just because there was something fun to show, like a baby skunk. They taught us how to use the “Please Touch” carts that we wheeled out into the museum lobby to chat with visitors like this guy who came in with a bone he’d found in his back yard, hoping it was something cool (I think the Physical Anthropology department determined it was a cow bone, which can be cool depending on how you feel about cows). Plus, when Joe gave me writing assignments, like to describe Ohio’s major rock formations or the Silurian salt deposits below Lake Erie, one or more of the museum’s educators would ALWAYS read and comment on my drafts, and even shared their own work for me to read. I get emotional writing about that stuff because those respectful interactions meant so much to me, and it’s so sadly rare for a black kid to get that kind of respect.

Perhaps most importantly, my interactions with the CMNH’s many educators taught me how museums and their staff should make people feel. The respect I felt was museum-wide and it made the CMNH a home, and it is literally why I’ve spent the rest of my life in museums. Those educators gave me so many memorable experiences, and the admittedly embarrasing fact that they’ve coalesced in my memory into an amalgam of faces and fun makes me feel OK about all the experiences I’ve helped create for learners over the years; experiences likely only attributed to “that guy at the museum” or “the guy leading that hike.” Those educators are why in every place I’ve worked, I’ve tried to be helpful and open and willing to do whatever it took to make visitors and colleagues feel valued; to make sure they knew that I was invested in them as people. Helping them learn and/or do their work is only a part of that investment. Seeing that educator get out of a van and walk out on an active roadway also showed me that I had to be resourceful to find creative ways to make a program work. I can’t say I’ve always succeeded, but I’ve always tried, even when the result was a pretty solid failure.

Below are some highlights of my journey as a science museum educator (with some extras sprinkled in) so far. Some of the gaps in time were when I was doing educational hip-hop performances, summer arts camps, and even teacher professional development programs with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the Cleveland-based Progressive Arts Alliance. But, in a refrain that will become common over the life of this blog, those are posts for another day.

 

Summer 1992, The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, OH: How can a kid teach teachers? 

My last summer at the CMNH may have been the most important for my career. Right after I graduated from high school, I co-led my first professional development program for teachers, along with Joe Hannibal. I remember standing in front of these teachers and wondering to myself, “what qualifies me to teach these teachers?” I’ve spent the rest of my career both directly and indirectly trying to answer that question in regard to museum educators overall, and in the process, I’ve become a historian and kind of ostracized myself from the work I love the most. Hopefully this blog bridges that gap.

 

Summer 1997, Newport News Park System, Newport News, VA: Be honest, make ’em smile, and listen more than you speak.

I didn’t do much in the way of education during my time at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia where I got a degree in Marine and Environmental Science, but when I was done I took a job as a Ranger Technician (RT) in the nearby Newport News Park System. Included among my surprisingly broad duties (wildlife rehab, anyone?) was leading night-time nature hikes in the main park. I don’t know if you’ve ever led a night-hike, but they are tailor made for fails. It is dark and even once your eyes have adjusted it is still hard for a new hiker to see anything, much less elusive crepuscular/nocturnal animals. So, for example, we almost never saw owls on the Owl Hike (except for my first one which ruined any shot I had at reasonable expectations) and never saw a single cool animal on Swamp Hikes.

swampbridge
The Swamp Bridge at Newport News Park in Newport News, VA. We hiked, we heard, we saw almost nothing.

Luckily there was a golf course in the park where deer would graze in the evening, so we’d swing by there and gawk before the short stroll back to the Park’s Interpretive Center. I was also supposed to help develop programs and exhibits for the new interpretive center at a beach front park adjacent to low-income housing. I spent all my time with the kids, partly because I was scared and didn’t know how to make an exhibit, and partly because they were kids who always wanted to talk. That may have been the most important duty of all; certainly, more relevant than eating expired pastries while taking trailer and tent site reservations in the campsite office. I got pretty fat.

 

Spring 1998, The Great Lakes Science Center, Cleveland, OH: Be on point and be accountable. Students and teachers are counting on you.

I moved home to Cleveland and got a full-time job at the Great Lakes Science Center, starting off as the specialist for the Environment floor.[2] The core of my job was leading school group tours where I guided their exhibit exploration and then walked them to their electricity show, IMAX, and lunch. Each morning we’d get a stack of colored papers for each of the schools we were guiding, and we’d meet them at the bus in a lab coat. Because, well, science. It seems mundane, and in a way, it was. But it taught me about how important timeliness and support are to a good museum experience for school groups. Shows need to start on time or be flexible if scheduled for a particular group. Unsupported (read: confused) teachers and chaperones can get flustered and poison every interaction from that point on. I also got to see the difference in student learning when teachers and chaperones joined in the fun, compared to the aimlessness and periodic wildness that would take place when the adults drifted off to have coffee and…do whatever people did before smart phones. I also wrote a few programs, helped with some teacher PD projects, and worked on the summer camp. It was a great experience, but it was a short one. Oh, the things I’d tell 24-year-old D.O. Alas…

sickearth
The Great Lakes Science Center used to have an Environment Floor, with stuff like a “Sick Earth” exhibit. Might be nice to have now, hunh?

 

Summer 1999, The Health Museum of Cleveland, Cleveland, OH: The honesty thing never fails, you can’t teach without listening, and there is joy in self-discovery.

Once the Great Lakes Science Center thing ran its course I landed on my feet at the now defunct Health Museum of Cleveland. It was, without a doubt, the most insane, awesome, ridiculous, satisfying, mystifying job ever. I had two main tasks: First, I was the coordinator for the traveling Healthy Acts Theatre program that featured scripted shows with puppets (!!!) and live performances by our professional and student actors. Second, I taught school package programs, which included three classes in the specially designed, themed classrooms. Healthy Acts was a mixed bag. I sucked as a coordinator, but the actors were so special, and the puppets were surreal. The student-actors were especially great, and I think about them often.

But nothing I’ve ever experienced as an educator was like those classrooms in the Health Museum of Cleveland. I was quickly one of the go-to-educators for the middle school packages, that usually included some combination of childbirth, puberty, heredity, and sexually transmitted diseases. It. was. incredible. The childbirth, or Wonder of New Life room featured a wall with models of the female reproductive organs, fetal development, and the birthing process. As I taught I would slowly migrate across the wall discussing ovaries, sperm and egg cells, blastocysts, embryonic development, and internal views of the baby progressing down the birth canal. The show ended with a video of a live birth. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen 12- and 13-year old’s watch a baby crowning.

wondernewlife_wall2
The Health Museum of Cleveland kept it really real.

The puberty room had a demonstration wall divided into two sections – you guessed it – male and female! We added different things to each body as they progressed through puberty. For the puberty class I came up with one of my proudest creations as an educator: the soup speech. In short, I explained that even though puberty transitions your body into childbearing, most of us aren’t ready to be parents. This is similar to soup: you put all the ingredients into the pot, but it has to cook for a while. All the parts are there, but it’s not ready. The teachers and parents would nod with thankful, impressed smiles.

wall1
Oh, the laughs I had in this room. Middle school students are the best.

Teaching STD’s was less fun, because it was mostly just showing pictures of infected penises and vulvas. I’m happy to say I never could extract a good time out of that. There were other classrooms covering the food pyramid, exercise, drugs and alcohol, bacteria and infections, etc., and almost all of them were fun to teach. STD’s basically dragged everything down, which seems totally appropriate.

More than anything, at the Health Museum I learned how important it is to listen and connect with your audience. Once I was teaching a heredity class, and about one-third through I’d finally made eye contact with every student in the room, which I thought was key to making everybody feel engaged. At that point it hit me – and I even said it out loud – that the group I was teaching was all girls. I smiled, said that it was awesome, and proceeded to urge anyone interested to become a genetic scientist because there’s a lot of stuff we need to figure out. At the end of the presentation, a school administrator that was on the tour offered me a job. I like to think it was because she recognized that I made it a priority to notice each student individually. Connecting is key to good teaching.

Another day, a father brought his son into the museum for an individualized “scared straight” session after he was caught smoking after school. I brought out the models of tarred lungs and rattled off lung cancer statistics. The kid couldn’t have cared less, and his dad seemed more worried than before. At the time I was a smoker, and I pushed all the models and charts aside and explained that I had an addiction; that I woke up and reached for cigarettes because I had no choice; that I knew I was killing myself but I didn’t know how or if I could stop; that if I could choose again I’d never have started and that he should save himself. The kid was visibly shaken, and the father was deeply thankful. It would take me a few more years – and a lung that was literally leaking air into my chest making me neck crinkle like bubble-wrap – to quit smoking. But I’ve never forgotten the power of sharing your story, and how honesty and transparency can build bridges to learning.

Sadly, the Health Museum and its unwelcoming, window-less post-Riot building are gone. The museum was rebuilt as Healthspace Cleveland in 2003 and closed soon after in 2006, with its building absorbed into the ever-growing corpus of the Cleveland Clinic; many of its exhibits sold off to other museums. What remained became a traveling program at the CMNH. A weird ending for a weird and wonderful place.

 

Fall 2005, The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA: People will tell you what they need and want to learn, if you listen.

It only took 15 years to have a professional experience as important as my first, but it came when I was hired as an Interpreter at the Franklin Institute (TFI). I guess I was (and those who hold the job now still are) supposed to be “interpreting” science for the public as though it’s some kind of foreign language, which would make sense given how much time we spend trying to make people “literate” in science. But, as we all know, science isn’t a language because new research isn’t a trite add-on like including slang or colloquial terms like “jiggy” or “GIF” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Plus, people interact with science all the time in every aspect of their lives, so “translating” it isn’t as important as helping people identify science at work and helping them make sensible, responsible decisions about its use based on thoughtful consideration of the complex issues that impact how science is deployed in society. Wait, where was I? Sorry, I got distracted by a rant.

As Interpreter, I was asked to perform in a way that was totally different than in any other museum. It was a revelation. In the mid 00s at TFI, the Interpreter’s job was to perform public science shows, staff the many activity carts scattered around the museum, train volunteers and staff on those carts, and do assigned “duties” to maintain the carts and show supplies. No part of the job included school-specific programming, and at the time of my hire, TFI didn’t offer any package tours for school groups. As a result, I spent my time interacting with public visitors and informally with school groups. At the carts, I didn’t have a strict script that I had to stick with. I could just…talk. There was a fluidity that turned out to be one of my biggest learning experiences as a museum educator.

The best example was the Heart Bar, the cart dedicated to heart and circulatory system physiology, pathology, and treatments, which included various models of hearts and blood vessels, preserved animal hearts, and real stents and pacemakers. Many of these were things familiar to people dealing with heart issues and treatments – either personally or within their families – but had never seen them up close. I can’t tell you how many times someone would say, “my uncle has a stent – is this what it looks like?” Or, “I used to have this pacemaker! They’ve upgraded since this one.” Or, “so this is what they did to my mom…” It felt so important to help people understand their bodies and their lives in ways that I would have assumed would happen with their doctor. Sadly,  I learned how little medical professionals actually teachI when my father suffered an aortic aneurysm a few years later. My time at the Heart Bar helped me understand what happened to my dad, and how amazing it was that the Cleveland Clinic doctors and staff were able to save his life. In a perfect world doctors and nurses could educate while healing, but it probably isn’t practical. It’s hard to teach someone who is actively being fleeced by a morally bankrupt medical system, even when you are a well-meaning health care provider.

Most importantly, being an Interpreter was fun, which allowed me to build my career in some unexpected ways. I actually felt refreshed after a day of teaching and doing shows, so going to grad school in the evenings wasn’t hard at all. Somehow I allowed myself to get talked into being promoted to a coordinator, which was idiotic, but I was rescued by being named an IPSE (Internship in Public Science Education) Intern and working with materials scientists from Penn State University and the incomparable Jayatri Das, now TFI’s lead bioscientist, to create nanotechnology demos for carts. I was also mentored by the brilliant Beth Tinker, who was then a museum exhibit designer and program developer, and should be running a museum by now if she isn’t already.

After getting my Masters from the University of Pennsylvania, I’ve continued my education at Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Along the way I became a historian and returned to Philadelphia in 2012 to do research on TFI, which quickly grew to include about 267 other museums (rough estimate). I see science education and museums differently now. I have become more critical and somewhat radical in my thoughts about how museums can and should contribute to society. But those stories – you guessed it! – are blogs for other days.

So there you have it: a brief look into the professional museum/informal education experiences of D.O… so far. I’ll probably be expanding on many of these stories as I continue blogging, and adding in some more. For example, I can’t wait to tell you about how and why I found myself launching frogs across a stage with an oversized slingshot. More importantly as you read on, and hopefully take issue with some of my arguments, I encourage you to keep my background in mind. Even though I am a historian now, I still think of myself as a museum educator and want everything I do to be of value to museum educators. I’ve had a wildly diverse career, too. I’ve done everything from nature hikes to outreach to teacher professional development to public shows. Those experiences have taught me that every aspect of museum work – from research to concessions to janitorial work to fundraising – is in service of the visitor. My historical research should be no different. Otherwise, my work won’t be as valuable as viable roadkill.

 

 

[1] It’s funny, but before I wrote this blog, I’d never really connected my career with the people who taught me how to be a museum educator. It says so much about how inglorious museum education can be, and how deep of an impact it can have.

[2] I was promoted to something like School Programs Manager or something, which I absolutely sucked at because I’m not a good coordinator and there was no one to manage; there might have been one floor specialist left. I burned myself out. I was so clueless back then.

The urgency of our time and the utility of the past: how American science museums can use their history to help build the future

I don’t spend a lot of time on the Internet. If ideas expressed here have been published or discussed elsewhere, please add a link in the comments and/or email me at domccullough@gmail.com and I’ll update this post accordingly.

 

The deadline has been set, and the clock to save life on Earth as we know it now spins with ominous speed. According to a new United Nations report, we have twelve years to stave off the most catastrophic of the inevitable impacts of climate change. To be successful, at base, every single global citizen must now take real, earnest steps to change their behaviors, neighborhoods, workplaces, and governance to maximize the potential of renewable products and processes. To be blunt, shit is incredibly real.

Having been one myself, I can imagine that science museum educators everywhere are taking this as a critical call-to-arms and an impetus to double down on the climate change education work that’s been done for YEARS. From my vantage point as a historian, science museum professionals seeking ways to broaden the impact of their  work will find some of their most useful tools in an unlikely place: their institutions’ own pasts. In order for science museums to meaningfully help build a livable future, they must confront the mistakes in their own history and reapply some of their success.

Beginning with the tremendously influential industrial science museums of the 1930s – the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, the Franklin Institute’s science museum, and the long defunct New York Museum of Science and Industry – many of these institutions have been stages used to promote and quite literally sell a consumption-based, product-driven image of American life that climate change demands we replace.[1] Several similar museums popped up around the country in the 1940s and 50s, and some established museums even incorporated industrial approaches into their practice, most notably the Boston Society of Natural History that transformed into the Boston Museum of Science in the 1940s.[2]

As an example, let’s take one of my favorite photos from the Franklin Institute’s history: this 1941 image of Nichol Smith, head of the museum’s Chemistry Section and a trained chemist, standing in his section’s newest addition: Sun Oil Company’s walk-through Oil Refinery.

SunOil_Smith_1941
Nichol Smith in Sun Oil Company’s 1941 Oil Refinery exhibit at the Franklin institute

Amidst a miniature refining plant, bubbling tubes and flowing liquids showed visitors the scientific and technological processes involved in refining oil, all in front of a massive photomural of an actual refining plant. It looked spectacular, in both image and message. Here was an exhibit selling an unabashedly glowing an idealized version of the oil industry, promoting Sun Oil’s collective intellectual and mechanical prowess along with the entire fossil fuels enterprise.

Exhibits by corporations like Bethlehem Steel and Pennsylvania Salt Company sold similar messages with analogous grandeur, while products like Bakelite promised domestic comfort and advancement. In short, to borrow from the title of Du Pont’s iconic exhibit that was featured in each industrial science museum, better living was coming through corporate science.

 

IMG_5519
Bethlehem Steel’s 1952 exhibition at the Franklin Institute
IMG_6056
Du Pont’s iconic “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry” exhibit

Of course, many of you (as I once did) might argue that the blatant corporate commercialism featured in these museums has been eradicated over the succeeding decades. But a closer, more difficult look at exhibit and program underwriting reveals that corporate presence has been muted, and, to be fair, often leveraged for positive, necessary educational outcomes. Inarguably, corporations remain impactful in American science museums, and revisiting their heyday of influence reveals two major tasks that modern science museums must take on to help save the world (I really wish that was hyperbole): First, science museums must directly engage the corporate-sponsored images of American prosperity that warp the expectations of many to this very day, and second, offer unabashedly glowing and idealized versions of more sustainable, and ultimately livable, alternatives.

As I’ve moved from being a museum educator to being a historian of science, technology, museums, and education, I had a realization that’s driven a surprising amount of my thinking: it’s hard to overstate how important it has become that Americans live full, satisfied lives of consumption to prove their superiority. The Cold War, for example, was essentialy contested to prove that capitalism was better for humanity than communism, and having bigger, better, faster, and stronger things was an actual front in that battle.[3] In America, we had bountiful grocery stores, toys for kids and adults alike to play with during their plentiful leisure time, and homes filled with comforts, entertainments, and tools to make everything easier and more enjoyable. The USSR had bread lines, rations, and government control over everything, including happiness. For many Americans, having more is a sign of strength. If all we do is talk about the dangers and science of climate change, we do nothing to keep the resulting recommendations to consume less seem like weakness. When you look at it this way, climate change science and how it tasks us with changing our lives is downright un-American.

Recent elections have shown the long-term effectiveness of the strategies companies used to linked their products and consumption to our country’s well-being; strategies that included science museum exhibits. Politicians have needed only to conjure images of a dream-like American past of opulence and freedom to return voters to the trough of fossil fuels. Many of these images were powerfully sold in science museums, and those of us who still work in science museums must work to erase their negative impacts and find ways to repeat their successes. For example, we can revisit the Sun Oil Company’s 1953 “Oil Serves America” exhibit, looking at the exhibit’s language and supporting documents and talk about how those messages turned out to be wrong.

Oil Serves America Booklet Cover
These images and text from the 30+ page “Oil Serves America” exhibit booklet point to the kinds of ideas museums used to promote, and that still shape how we think about science, industry, and America

 

We can talk about how mid-twentieth century science museum exhibits were recognized in advertising communities as “industry’s softest sell,” where marketing was so neatly woven into education that it was thought to be imperceptible.[4] And we can talk about how those ideas were about products and profits, and NOT about data and sustainability. We can’t just pretend those things didn’t happen. If you think this can’t or shouldn’t be done, a great example is the Looking at Ourselves exhibit at the Field Museum that reconsiders the museum’s deeply racist The Races of Mankind exhibition from the 1930s to directly refute the resist dangerous ideologies that the museum itself once promoted, identify their lasting consequences, and offer fact-based remedies.[5]

But these exhibits also show that depictions of real world applications of sientific progress can be powerful tools in shaping public opinion, raising the question of why we aren’t showcasing visions for the sustainable future that scientists and engineers can help us create. Where are the exhibit showing off not just the science of windmill farms and solar cell production, but also the actual corporations doing this work and the careers that could be booming in the future? Why aren’t there more exhibitions highlighting construction companies and architectural firms making green homes and buildings? Why aren’t there cheesy depictions of happy sustainable homes and children being amply fed by locally-sourced, sustainably farmed foods consumed seasonably? People don’t want to be frightened, they want to be reassured. We can’t sell doom and gloom as a reason for action, we have to sell action as a path to happiness and security. That’s exactly how science museums nursed the public through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, only the action was consumption. If we have any hope of bridging the gap from a country in denial to real, substantive change, we have to do the same, and sell the jobs and environmental industries that will help us build a livable future.

Of course, there’s far more to learn from museums of the past, many of which I think can help museums today. And there are also real questions about centering American industry in narratives coming from science museums, which is problemmatic at best. But those are posts, academic papers, and presentations for days to come.

 

[1] We need a ton more research on these museums’ early years, which I’m working on. Jaume Sastre’s work on the New York Museum of Science and Industry that closed in the 1950s has been huge in getting  the ball rolling. See Sastre-Juan, Dr Jaume. “Pilgrimages to the Museums of the New Age.” Science Museum Group Journal 6, no. 06 (2016). https://doi.org/10.15180/160606.

[2] Victor Danilov, former head of the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago has written a lot about the development of science museums. See Danilov, Victor J. Science and Technology Centers. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982.; The current name, Museum of Science, Boston, came later. See https://www.mos.org/history

[3] Carroll Pursell’s work has been most impactful, but these ideas are found in several histories of technology. I also remember living through the last years of the Cold War, when the importance of consumption was as strong as ever to American superiority. See Pursell, Carroll W. Technology in Postwar America : A History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

[4] “Industry’s Softest Sell: Museum Exhibits.” Business Week, September 30, 1961.

[5] There are some interesting newspaper stories considering the exhibit online. See http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/museums/ct-field-race-sculpture-column.html

Engineering Day – and a special engineer – at the Franklin Institute, 60+ years later.

So I just saw that this coming Saturday, September 29, 2018 is Engineering Day at the Franklin Institute! This seems like it will be a great event, with local engineering groups leading demonstrations, story time, hands-on activities, and even a book giveaway. And its Free dollars and nonedy-none cents! That means it doesn’t cost money if you don’t count parking and snacks and…well, we’ve all visited a museum before. I love them, they are my life, but they aren’t cheap. Enjoy the freebies when they come.

Anywho, this made me think about Engineering events of years past at ye old Franklin Institute, particularly those held at the Franklin Institute Science Museum (FISM) during the Cold War, largely because I’ve been writing a paper about them so they are burned into my brain.[1] Until I write another paper, of course.

During the Cold War, the Franklin Institute used its museum to host several career forum events to recruit more talented students into technical and scientific professions, including some specifically on engineering. Each of these events was structured somewhat like this month’s Engineering Day program, with several partnering groups and demonstrations, but with a much stronger focus on teaching students about career opportunities, including personal consultations with engineers working with major corporations. Almost all of the career forums shared this format, even the first one dedicated to metallurgy in 1955. I want you to think about how you’ve probably never been to a program on metallurgy, and that you probably never will, and feel that empty feeling one gets when they realize they’ll never get to learn about metallurgy. Stings, don’t it?

One such Engineering Career Forum, co-sponsored by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, was held over three days at the FISM in November 1957. The event was held just weeks after the Russian satellite Sputnik reached orbit, and befitting the fearful urgency of the time, earned a greeting from the President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower.[2] Eisenhower sent a telegram to Robert Neathery, then the Director of Education at the FISM, after having worked as a classroom science teacher, and before he was named Director of the entire museum. Shocking as it may seem, during a period when science education was deemed a national priority, some people actually valued the expertise of educators. People sure were wacky back in the 1950s!

CareerForum_TitlePhoto_Cropped
Female students were targeted for engineering careers in the 1950s, but the field still lacks gender equality. What-had-happened-was…

As printed in a story in the December 1957 issue of the Franklin Institute’s member newsletter, The Institute News, Eisenhower’s telegram to Neathery reads as follows:

“Robert Neathery, Franklin Institute

Please give my greetings to the young people of Philadelphia attending the Engineering Career Forum sponsored by The Franklin Institute and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. It is encouraging to learn of this fine effort to advance study of science in our high schools. For the continuing progress and protection of our land, it is essential to broaden the base of our trained scientific personnel. Best wishes for a splendid Forum.

Dwight D. Eisenhower.”

The 1957 Engineering Career Forum was attended by over 800 students from area high schools who “received general and specialized advice concerning the choice of engineering as a career from more than 60 educators and industry representatives.” The program featured talks by industrialists and educators including “An Engineering Career,” by Cullen T. Pearce, Westinghouse Corp.; “A Young Engineer in Industry,” by Dennis L. McDonald, Philadelphia Electric Co.; and “Electrical Engineering Education,” by Dr. Howard E. Tompkins from the University of Pennsylvania. After the talks, Dr. A.L. Charley of Bell Telephone Company gave a Solar Battery Demonstration. The program closed with and individual counseling sessions in the museum’s Franklin Hall. A good time, apparently, was had by all.

IMG_5628
Totally candid. Nothing staged here.

It’s telling that during the height of the Cold War with Russia, a career program at a science museum would draw the attention of the sitting president of the United States. At this point, the fact that a president expressed concern about anything untoward done by Russians seems both heartbreaking and reassuring. It’s also worth noting that this wasn’t the first time that Dwight D. Eisenhower had sent a letter to the Franklin Institute, as he’d once thanked the Institute’s leadership for their contributions to the Army during WWII. But that’s a blog for another day.

 

One last thing – I’m using this post as an excuse to shout out Fred Gaskins, an engineer – and supposedly the “first” black person employed at the Franklin Institute – who worked in the colloids section of the Franklin Institute Laboratories for Research and Development (FILRAD) in the mid-1950s. It’s hard to imagine he was really the first black person ever hired at the Franklin Institute, but I’m the weirdo who deeply appreciates and values the work of janitors, cooks, and laborers, which are the kinds of positions I’m guessing black people were relegated to before Fred Gaskins broke through into an important research group.  In any event, I hope to find out more about Fred Gaskins. He is important and his example reminds us why programs like Engineering Day can be transformative. We can’t afford to let systemic racism artificially limit the number of engineers available to contribute to building a brighter, sustainable future. I hope this coming September 29 at the Franklin Institute will be just that type of event.

Fred Gaskins_Cropped
In celebration of Fred Gaskins and engineering at TFI

 

[1] D.O. McCullough, “The Franklin Institute Science Museum’s Cold War Consortium for Science Education, 1954-1960.” Paper presented at the Organization of Educational Historians 2018 Annual Conference, Chicago, IL, October 2018.

You’ll notice that I’ve made a distinction between the Franklin Institute (TFI) and the Franklin Institute Science Museum (FISM). That is intentional. Before the 1980s, the Franklin Institute was a far more diverse and wide ranging organization with an active research program and a robust library. So when writing about the Institute’s history it is necessary to distinguish between the overarching institution and the museum that was but one division. Once, a non-historian academic, after reading a draft of a historical paper I’d written about the FISM and participating in a group discussion about that paper, sidled up to me. Attempting to help, they said, “you know, its just called the Franklin Institute now.” Don’t be that person. I’m not writing about the Franklin Institute now. I’m writing about the Franklin Institute of the past. It was different. Yes, I’m still bitter. For more, see Coulson, Thomas. “The Franklin Institute from 1824 to 1949.” Journal of the Franklin Institute 249, no. 1 (1950): 1–48. https://doi.org/DOI: 10.1016/0016-0032(50)90001-9.

[2] “Eisenhower Congratulates Engineering Career Forum,” The Institute News, Vol. 22, No. 4, December 1957, p. 3

A charitable school, three horses, and a tavern: How the Ludwick Institute became the Academy of Natural Science’s educational partner

Almost every museum educator could use some extra funding. I know, I could easily drop the “almost” and the “some” and not be too far off. Well how would you feel if, instead of going through the life-shortening process of writing a grant, all it took to get the cash was to lace up your nice (budget) running shoes and beat another institution in a race? Preposterous and slightly appealing, right?

As ridiculous as it sounds, a race is exactly how the Ludwick Institute — the charitable organization that was put in charge of delivering educational lectures at Philadelphia’s venerable Academy of Natural Sciences (ANS) from 1896 through the mid-twentieth century — came to be and eventually deliver decades of museum programs. When Christopher Ludwick, described as “a benevolent and wealthy German citizen” died in June 1801, he left roughly $8,000 to provide free education for Philadelphia children regardless of race, religion, or country of origin, although we can probably assume the standard nineteenth century exclusions of anyone brown.[1] Spoiler alert: the people who got the cash and the name did so by winning a race. The event took place in early September 1801, and the story of the race that extended over sixty-plus miles was chronicled in an article, “The Very Curious and Entertaining History of the Ludwick Institute,” published in Philadelphia’s The Times newspaper in December 1899. See where we’re headed? But, before we dive in, allow me to give a little historical context.

[Feel free to skip the next few paragraphs if you don’t want historical context, but it’s fantastic and you should want fantastic things in your life.]

Despite the conventional wisdom that American museum education, particularly in science museums, didn’t come of age as a field until the 1980s, there is ample evidence that professional museum educators have been actively working with school children, teachers, and the public since the late nineteenth century.[2] Admittedly, the years before World War II were a formative period when many museums were slowly building their educational staff’s and programming. The ANS is a pretty good example. In 1936, ANS leaders hired W. Stephen Thomas as Director of Education, based on his background working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and perhaps that stately name.[3] Thomas surveyed ~1600 Philadelphia-area teachers, asking what kinds of educational support they’d like from Academy, and soon after instituted several lessons for school children. Nothing too earth shattering here.

Meanwhile, some of the earliest educational programs offered by American science museums – and we’re just talking about natural history museums at this point – were for teachers. In the late 1870s, a group of teachers got things rolling by partnering with the Boston Society for Natural History to offer courses and even certification for student teachers.[4] The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York started offering teacher lectures in 1881.[5] The Milwaukee Public Museum claims to have been the first American museum doing specimen loans for teachers in 1888.[6] The AMNH joined in on the teacher loan program fun in 1903, and by 1914 the Field Museum in Chicago had its own program.[7] Teacher lectures were peppered in all over the place. Whether fueled by altruism or the view that teachers suck at their job (as we know far too well, lame arguments are resilient), museum professionals were all about helping teachers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

While all this teacher-museum goodness was going on, the leaders at the Academy of Natural Sciences (ANS) were chilling. And by chilling, I mean doing nothing.[8] To be fair, the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, founded in 1894, was deeply immersed with the Philadelphia Public School district, distributing object-loans and lecturing students aplenty.[9] It’s not like there was some glaring need in the schools that the ANS’s leaders were ignoring. Still, the ANS, founded in 1812 as a learned society of science nerds (I say this admiringly because I’m writing a blog about the history of science museum education, so…glass house and whatnot), wasn’t too keen on dealing with the public. The ANS’s members even fought their own highly respected president and MAJOR benefactor, William Maclure, who wanted to open their collections and library to the public in the 1830s.[10] Their compromise was allowing select, approved citizens to visit the ANS during severely restricted the hours. So, it’s not surprising that ANS leaders would propose that the Ludwick Institute organize and pay for lectures on natural history topics primarily aimed at teachers, while the ANS just opened the door to their auditorium. I can imagine that the ANS’s leaders did cartwheels and high-fives when the Ludwick Institute’s leaders agreed.

William Maclure from A Short History of the Academy of Natural Sciences by Nolan
“Let’s let everybody in to see the Academy of Natural Science’s museum and library! Is that a hard ‘no,’ or is there some wiggle room?”

 

[Pick up here if somehow you didn’t want to read about history in a post about history. Not that I’m bitter.]

According to the December 10, 1899 story in The Times, what came to be known as the Ludwick Institute started out, like many of the best American things, with a bunch of friends hanging out at the bar.[11] As described in the uncredited article, during the Winter of 1799, “a few young men were in the habit of meeting at a public house for social enjoyment,” and one of them, William Nekervis, was late because he “had allowed himself to be detained to witness a most praiseworthy effort of some young women to teach gratuitously poor girls who had no opportunity of acquiring an education.” Nothing creepy about that. Anyway, he decided that he and his friends should do the same for boys and they each kicked in some cash and created the Philadelphia Society for the Instruction of Indigent Boys. So far, so “praiseworthy.” In June 1801 they opened a day school and changed the name to the Philadelphia Society for the Establishment and Support of Charity Schools (which I’ll call “The Society” because we all have lives we want to get back to). The only thing left to do was file an article of incorporation.

Before the Society for charity schools was incorporated, Charles Ludwick died and left money for exactly that purpose, but they weren’t the only organization aiming to provide free education for poor children (try not to cry; people once thought that should happen). The Society immediately pursued the charter, along with a group from the University of Pennsylvania (U. Penn) which was like the oldest university in America, founded by Ben Franklin, and already firmly established as what academics refer to as “nice with theirs.” Each group had gotten the appropriate signatures and Philadelphia’s Chief Magistrate, who, maintaining “strict impartiality” delivered deeds to both the Philadelphia Society and U. Penn. The catch was that the deed had to be recorded at the Rolls office in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, about sixty miles away, in order for the incorporation to be finalized. The first group to get to Lancaster would get the Ludwick funding. The race was on.

The public was notified that the Ludwick endowment would be awarded to the first group to go from Philadelphia to Lancaster, PA, and “there was great excitement respecting it.” No kidding. Who wouldn’t be excited about a race to fill out some paperwork? “The University had everything in readiness,” reads the story in The Times, “with relays arranged for along the road.” U. Penn wasn’t playing games, and their representative got on “a fast trotting horse” that was waiting right in front of the court room. Joseph Bennett Eves, at that time president of the Society and somehow not aware that he was racing against a premier university with a horse known for speedy trots, hopped on what was described as “a fine horse.” C’mon Eves. “Fine” is not greater than fast when racing. At this point I think it’s reasonable to question how much of The Times’ story was embellished for sensationalism and express my personal gratitude if that did indeed happen.

For the first fourteen or sixteen miles, the two riders traveled side by side. But Eves, slipping yet again, hadn’t set up horses along the way for relays, and didn’t know about “the discomforture of the horseman” (in fairness to Eves, I don’t even know if that’s a real word) and his horse became exhausted. Undaunted, Eves took a horse from a plow (!!!) to go to the next town where he purchased a third horse from a traveler. Basically, Eves got a cute looking horse, didn’t plan ahead, ran the attractive horse into the ground, and left both a person and a plow stranded to make up for his lack of foresight. And yet, Eves was STILL in the lead. What was happening with the U. Penn rider? When Eves rode through Downingtown, Pennsylvania, the crowd that had gathered to watch him race to file a legal document thought they saw the U. Penn rider “coming in the distance” and shouted “there he comes; there he comes!” But it wasn’t him. Eves had passed and lost sight of his opponent along the way as they passed the Spread Eagle Tavern. I couldn’t make this up if I tried. We can assume, then, that U. Penn’s rider made an unexpected stop. Please allow me this moment of tact and make up your own jokes regarding the Spread Eagle Tavern.

 

TheRaceFortheCharter_18_Photo_The_Times_Sun__Dec_10__1899_
I think this is Eves, and I want so badly for that to be the Spread Eagle Tavern in the background.

Seven hours and sixty-six miles later, Eves arrived in Lancaster at the residence of the Master of the Rolls, a title sadly not reserved for a bread maker, and submitted the charter for enrollment on behalf of the Society. He did so at 8:10pm in the evening on September 7, 1801, and the charter was officially recorded at 12:10pm two days later. No word on if the rider from U Penn ever arrived. Available data does not disprove that his bosses encouraged him to just stay at the Spread Eagle Tavern if he liked it so damn much.

The Society had won the race and the Ludwick funds, but they didn’t receive the award for another five years. By then, the value of the endowment had risen to $10,340 and, when Ludwick’s wife died, included a house for a grand total of $13,000. In the meantime, the Society used subscriptions to purchase land and build a brick house where they taught both boys and girls. All was good until 1818, when the law was passed establishing the Philadelphia common schools – with help from members of the Society – and the need for charitable schools would dwindle over the succeeding decades. The Society was slowly becoming an organization without a purpose.

The Society changed its name to the Ludwick Institute and sought solutions to continue to use the trust, which is where the Academy of Natural Sciences enters the picture. In 1896 Dr. Samuel G. Dixon, the president of the Academy, also member of Board of Managers for Ludwick Institute, suggested that it would “be entirely in harmony with the original design,” to use the money for teachers, whose knowledge is used indirectly for children anyway. Dixon also suggested that the Ludwick’s members could arrange courses of scientific lectures, because teachers, and by proxy students, would benefit from the direct knowledge and “the mental training inseparable from such knowledge.” To achieve all this, the Ludwick would simply have to devote its money “to aiding the Academy in securing the best scientific talent possible to lecture.”

 

And there you have it. The race that led to programs at a museum that the museum’s staff did nothing but host – at least for a while. The Ludwick Institute hosted lectures and programs at the ANS for decades, and by the 1940s, many of those programs were organized by the museum’s director of education. Even through the 1970s, some ANS programs still carried the name of the Ludwick Institute. The Ludwick Institute, now known as The Christopher Ludwick Foundation, continues its original charter to fund programs for poor children in Philadelphia. You can check out their important work at their website.

Now that you’ve read all of this, feel free to be disappointed that you can’t win some race to get cash for your museum programs, or find someone who already won a race and have them do all your programs while you do nothing. And if you feel sad enough, take heart in knowing that there’s probably a tavern to get lost in somewhere along the way to work tomorrow.

 

*I’m not on the Internet much so I don’t see everything. If the information or perspectives in this post have been published or discussed elsewhere, please send me an email or comment below with links and I’ll update this post to incorporate and reference those works.

 

 

 

 

[1] “The Very Curious and Entertaining History of the Ludwick Institute,” 10 Dec 1899, Page 18 – The Times at Newspapers.Com.” Newspapers.com. Accessed February 7, 2018. http://www.newspapers.com/image/53388897/?terms=%22academy%2Bof%2Bnatural%2Bsciences%22%2Bteacher.

[2] The idea that museum education “came of age” in the 1980s comes directly from Roberts (p. 6), which she argues raised the political tensions with scholarship. During this time, Roberts argues, educators challenged prevailing notions about who determines what should be taught in museums, and how, and that by doing so they brought the voices of visitors and marginalized communities to the fore. This perception may come from the Museums for a New Century Report, published by the American Association (now Alliance) of Museums in 1984, but I’ll admit that I’m neither sure nor convinced. Rader and Cain and Roberts each acknowledge that several American natural history museums had active education programs in the 1930s. See Rader, Karen A., and Victoria E. Cain. Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University 0f Chicago Press, 2014.; and Roberts, Lisa C. From Knowledge to Narrative: Educators and the Changing Museum. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997. Also see American Association of Museums Commission on Museums for a New Century, Museums for a New Century: A Report of the Commission on Museums for a New Century. American Association of Museums, 1984.

Also, Grace Fisher Ramsey’s doctoral research surveying American museums in the 1930s provides a broad overview of the state of education in these institutions. See Ramsey, Grace (Fisher). Educational Work in Museums of the United States; New York, 1938. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/wu.89090364522.

[3] Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia Exhibits Department records, 1852-2001 ANSP.2010.004 Finding aid prepared by Eric Rosenzweig and Kira Vidumsky, 2010. https://www.ansp.org/~/media/Files/ans/library-archives/finding-aids/ANSP_2010-004_Exhibits_Department_Records_1852-2001.ashx?la=en

[4] Kohlstedt, Sally Gregory. Teaching Children Science: Hands-On Nature Study in North America, 1890-1930. Chicago, US: University of Chicago Press, 2010. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10389565.

[5] Ramsey, Educational Work in Museums

[6] Lurie, Nancy Oestreich. A Special Style: The Milwaukee Public Museum, 1882-1982. Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Public Museum, 1983.

[7] Sherwood, George H. “The Story of the Museum’s Service to Schools.” Natural History 27 (1927): 315–350.

Field Museum of Natural History. Field Museum and the Child. An Outline of the Work Carried on by the Field Museum of Natural History among School Children of Chicago through the N.W. Harris Public School Extension and the James Nelson and Anna Louise Raymond Public School and Children’s Lectures. Stephen C. Simms, Director. Chicago, 1928. https//catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001490195.

[8] Rosenzweig and Vidumsky, “ANS, Phialdelphia Exhibits Department records”

[9] Toothaker, Charles Robinson. Educational Work of the Commercial Museum of Philadelphia. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1921.

[10] Orosz, Joel. Curators and Culture: The Museum Movement in America, 1740-1870. Tuscaloosa : University of Alabama Press, 1990., 120-121

[11] The Times, “The Very Curious and Entertaining Story.” For the next few sections, all the info comes from this story. Let’s skip all the footnotes because we all have lives to get back to.

Music of the Moment: Anderson .Paak’s Cover Art

I genuinely can’t remember the last time I’ve been this excited about a musician. Anderson .Paak, the wildly talented singer/rapper/drummer/producer/musical superhero from Oxnard, CA, is poised for a career takeoff and I’m practically giddy. For most, .Paak is only known for his multiple features on Dr. Dre’s well regarded 2015 album Compton, if at all. .Paak’s slinky rasp and wry storytelling added warm textures and poignant observations to Dre’s swan song; inclusions that Dre was wise to welcome. The Dr. Dre cosign has launched several megastars (see Ice Cube, Snoop, Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar) and .Paak has spent the months since launching rocket after rocket from his new cultural launchpad.

In the interviews following his high profile work with Dr. Dre, .Paak has been quick to point out that his breakthrough was years of hard work in the making. He came to Dre’s attention (and mine as well) through his collaboration with producer Knxwledge – together known as Nxworries. Their single “Suede” is a jaw dropper: a sleek slice of street philosophy told with disarming wit and candor. .Paak makes it all seem simple, and his back catalog shows the labor it took to do so. Based on his bandcamp site, .Paak has no less than four complete albums to his credit, including two self-produced releases from 2012: the incredible O.B.E. Vol. 1 and LOVEJOY, both recorded under the name Breezy Lovejoy. In 2014 .Paak released Venice, an uneven but promising ode to Southern California.

The most interesting – and telling – release in Anderson .Paak’s impressive back catalog is the lone freebie, a six song EP of remakes called Cover Art. According to .Paak, he decided to undertake the project after reflecting on black music that was replayed and made popular by white singers in the 1950s. Cover Art is .Paak’s attempt to turn the tables by choosing six compositions from “your favorite stringy hair singers” and re-imagining them with “soul, jazz, hip-hop and even electronic funk and r&b.” In the process, .Paak lays out his stellar music toolkit, which includes his remarkably emotive – if limited – voice, imaginative arrangements, and the considerable musical chops of he and his band.

Cover Art Photo

Cover Art’s success begins with .Paak’s inspired selections for source material. For the first half of Cover Art, .Paak keeps it current. The EP opens with The Yeah Yeah Yeahs driving alt-rocker Maps, which .Paak brings along with a slow boil; replacing the original’s shrieking guitars with keyboard chords and richly layered vocals. A slightly more faithful cover of The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army follows, though .Paak never allows his version to explode like the original. Instead, he limits the familiar drum/guitar riff to a peppy but rather forgettable groove. .Paak then turns to The Postal Service’s Such Great Heights, a heartfelt electro-love song that .Paak morphs into an electro-soul ballad. By doing so, .Paak moves his storytelling to the fore, getting the most out of the images and emotion written into the original’s gorgeous lyrics.

For as strong as Cover Art‘s opening is, its on the back half of older songs that .Paak excels. He starts off with one of the jewels of The Beatles’ peerless catalog, “Blackbird.” .Paak wisely stays out of the way, relying on his rich voice and the stellar composition. While .Paak left “Blackbird” largely untouched, he strips the chorus from Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” to use as scaffolding, along with a refrain from Trinidad James’ lamentable hit “All Gold Everything,” for a surprisingly poignant rap song about materialism. .Paak and his fellow vocalists then spit able verses over a sparse rhythm. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The EP then closes with a jazz-soul remake of Toto’s rollicking “Hold the Line.” This is another dramatic rework, with .Paak turning producing duties over to Vicky Nguyen and sharing vocals with the potent Roquel Rodriguez. Its a spectacular closer, with instrument solos and a sultry back and forth on vocals.

.Paak may have undertaken Cover Art as a subversion of racism in musical consumption, but its triumph is far more personal. Through his remakes, .Paak brings the listener into the conversations that inform his own music. In that sense, Cover Art is an exercise where .Paak et al explore compositions to find new ways to highlight their own viewpoints and talents. In years past when recording music was far more expensive and required a label to release, these versions may have just been mixed in with his originals in live shows. But the ubiquity of affordable recording software and the availability of sites like Bandcamp for distribution have made it possible for .Paak’s ideas to be locked in place and shared freely. The result is a fascinating and surprisingly rewarding document that says more about .Paak’s boundless work ethic and open approach to becoming a better artist than it does about the artists whose work he uses.

.Paak has retold the story of being invited to Dr. Dre’s studio without having actually met Dr. Dre. It turned out Dre hadn’t heard of .Paak at all. After hearing “Suede” three times in a row, however, Dre was so enamored that he invited .Paak to riff over raw tracks for his secret new album. The results made their way to Compton, and a star, one might presume, was born. .Paak sees it differently, that years of work and recording helped him build the chops and confidence to stride into the studio with one of the hip-hop generations most accomplished producers and convince that producer that he was already a star. Cover Art is a part of that impressive process, while also a piece of work that stands ably on its own merits. Its a worthy introduction to an artist who hasn’t much use for potential, only process and consistently thrilling product.