Eight Million Sunflower Seeds Can’t Be Wrong

The other day I spotted this headline: “Tate Buys 8 Million ‘Sunflower Seeds'”

For a moment, I thought that London’s famous Tate Modern was branching out into living history, or perhaps starting an heirloom seeds program like that of Pennsylvania’s Landis Valley Museum.

The single quotes should have tipped me off. These were hand-painted porcelain seeds, part of  a 100 million-seed art installation by Chinese artist Ai WeiWei. As I read on, I realized his original 2010 installation had a few similarities to some outdoor museum programs.

Seeds and plants–real ones–are important to many living history museums, as is the food that comes from them. But sometimes for the sake of interpretation, convenience, or cost, artifice comes into play. Imitation foods, products, people, or buildings can become stand-ins for the real thing, references to times and objects that no longer exist.

Mr. Ai’s handpainted seeds have multiple references: sunflower seeds were an important food source in difficult times; the tiny nuggets reminded him of tweets; Mao had called the Chinese people “sunflowers.” Mr. Ai hired 1600 Chinese artisans to make the seeds in a town where traditional porcelainware had been the mainstay for over 1000 years. In that sense, this project was a new application of traditional skills honed over generations–something some of the best living history museums also try to do by learning, preserving, and adapting historical methods and practices.

At first, Tate staff encouraged visitors to touch or wade through the pile of porcelain seeds. But they soon realized that the visitors’ movements caused the seeds to grind together, releasing hazardous dust. How many times have living history museums encouraged visitors to touch, feel, or immerse themselves in an activity and then had to back track when something went awry?

I don’t want to overextend the analogy. I was just having fun thinking about this modern art installation in terms of living history. But the folks at Landis Valley’s heirloom seed operation may want to take note: Sotheby’s sold a portion of the work–100,000 seeds–in London last year for more than half a million dollars. That’s about $5.60 per seed. Perhaps instead of printing an order form, Landis Valley should hire an auctioneer.

UPDATE Feb 3, 2013: Here’s a link to a CBS Sunday Morning feature on Ai WeiWei and a show of his work at the Hirshorn. Powerful.

Driving America Opening Photos

Here are a few photos of the Driving America opening at Henry Ford Museum last night. We didn’t take very many–too many people to talk to, too much going on! For some other photos, here’s a link to the Detroit News story. And yes, that’s me and my brother pictured and quoted in the article. Wall Street Journal also did a nice review, but no photos. After working so hard on this project it was nice to just get to enjoy it!

Me and Bob Casey
Curator of Transportation Bob Casey, me, and the 1865 Roper Steam Carriage.
One of several touch-screen interactives designed by Cortina Productions. In this one you learn to drive a Model T and have to navigate around several challenges, including cattle on the road. I led the concept development team for the interactives.
Hot Rods
Hot rods and cool customs
customs case
Low-profile cases in the exhibit provide cultural context. This one is on custom cars, and features artifacts and images from well-known customizers Chuck Miller and the Alexander Brothers.
My brother, Command Sgt Major John Seelhorst, and I talked with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood at the event.

“A Thoroughfare of Freedom Beat Across the Wilderness”

This lyric from America the Beautiful came to mind today as I walked through the woods. The song was on my mind because a presidential candidate started quoting it recently in order to stir the Passions of the Patriotic Bosom. (Don’t worry, this isn’t a political screed.)

My route traversed a marshy area along Florida’s Shingle Creek, where Palmetto and wiregrass grow among wild grapevines, black gum and bald cypress. Today, the dark water creeps slowly under Kissimmee’s busy Vine Street–part of a network of wide asphalt boulevards that all seem to lead to Disneyworld. Few drivers ever see the creek, and the closest many tourists get is gazing at it from the bridge while walking to the Shingle Creek bus stop.

But not so long ago this creek was itself a thoroughfare on which commerce moved. A chain of rivers, lakes, and creeks allowed a person to travel from Orlando to Miami on water alone. Seminole indians, settlers, traders, hunters, tourists, farmers—all traveled Florida by water long before asphalt was invented. Although many paths and trails were indeed “beat across the wilderness” by wild hogs and scrub cattle, hopeful families and warring armies, the waterways were always there—at least until the great drainage projects of the late 19th century. But that’s another story.

The word “freedom” is politically charged these days with as much freight as the old steamers that used to ply Florida’s waterways once carried. You probably expect a screed about how horrible all the new Disney-driven development is, but that’s not my point.  As a culture, we’ve made choices about our thoroughfares of freedom, and I’m not going to judge them here. (I’m in Kissimmee, Florida to work with the Osceola County Historical Society on an outdoor museum project, so you can probably guess whether I prefer the wild kingdom or the Magic Kingdom™.)

Taking the long view, these new developments and roadways and tourist attractions are just new paths beat across the old wilderness. But the wilderness is still there under the Google-mapped grid. The rivers and creeks still flow from Orlando to Miami. You just don’t see them unless you get out of the car and look.

When I left the woods and walked back to my hotel,  I noticed how plants decorate the seams in abandoned parking lots and poked through every crack in every curb. Maybe they’re waiting us out, hoping we’ll forget to seal the cracks and repave the roads.

Until then, I want to encourage people to get off the thoroughfare and look at what’s left of the old wilderness. It’s closer than you think.

No Longer Under Construction

I’ve owned the domain name maryseelhorst.com for years, but I never wanted to have a web site or a blog. Why bother? When you google my name, what y0u find is pretty much me—give or take a petty thief. (And to find her, you have to know my middle initial.) Because I’ve led an exemplary life—well, online anyway—there isn’t much out there on the internet machine that requires plausible deniability.

People who wanted to find me could always find me. For my main line of work—museum exhibit development and exhibit script writing—word of mouth worked just fine. It seemed to be an appropriate way to find someone who studied folklore in grad school. And because word of mouth includes a lot of context, it meant I didn’t have to repeatedly answer the question frequently asked: “Are  you an exhibit designer?” (For the record: no, but I work with designers on most projects.)

Finding my band is easier. (You can go to the band’s web site, or find us on Facebook.) But because I’m too busy these days to do many gigs outside the band, it didn’t make sense to maintain a web site. And if I had one, I’d have to answer the other question frequently asked: “What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin? (For the record: it’s the way you play it. And I play fiddle, not violin.)

So what made me change my mind? First, that embarrassing “site under construction” page you get when there’s no there there. Second, my husband’s pseudo-semi-kinda-sorta-retiring at the end of this week. As a major automotive journalist, he’s better known than I am but has a more generic name. Googling him could be dangerous—who knows what kind of reprehensible deeds other Tony Swans have committed? Despite his Luddite tendencies I convinced him to manage his own brand and  start a blog.

So I figured I’d better put my arse out there too; what’s good for the cob is good for the pen (sorry, you have to know your swan-like waterfowl taxonomy to get that one). I may not post often, but at least you’ll be able to find it.