District Sights: National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden

On the hunt for a convenient, quick, and close-by lunch spot between our visits to the National Air & Space Museum and the National Museum of African American History & Culture, we wandered into the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden on our way to the Pavilion Cafe. With bad weather looming, we made our way around the fountain, lingered just a bit at a few of the statues and went inside just in time. It started raining while we were in line to order.


In our quick visit though I took a few photos and have since done some research on one of the artist’s whose work in the sculpture garden stood out to me. Titled Puellae (Girls), the collection of bronze, headless figurines standing amidst trees, was haunting. In search of the meaning behind these figures I quickly Googled but the first page that came up offered nothing beyond the fact that the figures were bronze, made in 1982, and were indeed at the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden (thanks Google/Wikipedia). A friendly security guard passed by just as I declared my internet search of no use and told us that the statues were inspired by a story the artist had heard during World War II of a transport of girls from Poland to Germany who all died from exposure to the cold in the cattle cars used to move them.


The artist is Magdalena Abakanowicz who grew up in Poland. She was 9 years old when Nazi Germany invaded and she grew up outside of Warsaw, and after the war, lived under Soviet control. She went to art school and began her career in a the climate of Soviet rigid conservatism. Artists were only allowed to create art in one style–Socialist realism. As she moved through her career as an artist those restrictions were lifted. Abakanowicz is known for working with textiles and for several humanoid sculptures like those at the National Portrait Gallery. Drawing on her experience of World War II and its aftermath, she is “best known for her “crowds” (as she calls them) of headless, rigidly posed figures whose anonymity and multiplicity have been regarded as the artist’s personal response to totalitarianism.” (National Gallery of Art website)


I am not personally terribly interested or good at art. I often don’t “get” it. But when art is used to represent history or the past, I am better able to understand. I wish this sort of background information was included on art gallery labels, but I suppose sometimes the art is meant to speak for itself and be open to interpretation. I prefer knowing the inspiration myself. With the background of this sculpture, I see more than creepy headless figures and instead see the atrocities of war and how such large scale inhumanity creates so many anonymous victims.

Public art is often cited as one way to better highlight history of places, especially when original structures no longer stand. What do you think about using art to tell history?

Interpretive Plans, Home Tours, Newsletters, and Social Justice

The semester is flying by! The Volga to Cape Fear project has moved along smoothly and we now have an official title for the exhibit. Push and Pull: Eastern European and Russian Migration to the Cape Fear Region will open April 29th in Randall Library’s gallery. Our interpretive plans have been turned in and sent to our Advisory Committee for their review. We (the student curators) will be meeting with the committee this week to hear their comments on the plan and ask them for clarification on any points we are unsure of. Once the interpretive plan is finalized we will move into design.

My section of the exhibit is on immigration from 1991 to the present. I present what life was like in post-Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe, why some people decided to emigrate, what the process of immigration to the United States is like both in terms of filing paperwork and leaving behind home, friends, and family, and how new immigrants adjusted (and continue to adjust) to life in the Cape Fear Region. Research on all of these topics was necessary as well as finding photos and choosing objects either from those we collected last semester or by suggesting new acquisitions for flushing out the major concepts. I connected major points from my research to the objects in order to show visitors why immigrants left Russia and Eastern Europe, the difficulties in doing so, and the challenges to adapting and maintaining culture. I can’t wait to translate the interpretive plan into design and finally into a real product.

In other news, my internship has kept me busy as well. I have continued to work on the Home Tour, finishing up the descriptions for the docents by wrapping up research and interviewing the home owners about the renovations they have done to the homes as well as any interesting antiques or heirlooms they have in the home. In the process, I’ve seen many of the beautiful homes that will be on the tour and learned about what draws people to own, restore, or renovate historic homes. The homes all carry with them unique features or interesting stories related to their former owners. These small details are the most interesting to me and I enjoy hearing the current owners talk about these small ties to the past that can still be seen in their homes.

In addition to continuing work on the Home Tour, I have also assisted with preparing the Historic Wilmington Foundation’s spring edition of the News, the organizational newsletter. I have written an article on the Brookwood neighborhood, the latest community to seek National Register district designation, a process now underway thanks to funding acquired through another development’s Section 106 Review. I have learned more about the kinds of situations that spark Section 106 review (through the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966) as well as the kinds of results that can come out of mitigation. The newsletter should be out by the end of the month.

I have also worked on numerous other small projects, such as contacting people to seek nominations for Preservation Awards or Most Threatened Historic Places, two initiatives that HWF presents in May as part of National Preservation Month, compiling lists of guides for guided walking tours, contacting potential docents for the Home Tour, and taking photos of properties for inclusion in the newsletter.

The final update comes from my Historic House Museums course in which we have been discussing the role of house museums, particularly how house museums can engage in social justice. We have Skyped with several professional in the field, including Liv Sevchenko who has been involved with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. It is inspiring to learn about sites that use history and historic sites in order to engage people in dialogue about modern issues. This is a goal I think worthy of aspiring to in both house museums as well as other forms of museums and historic sites.

The semester is headed toward crunch time with many upcoming events including a trip to the North Carolina Museums Council Conference next weekend, Historic House Museums course trip to Savannah and Charleston to tour some examples, the Historic Wilmington Foundation Home Tour, and of course, the production and installation of the exhibit.