Be Kind

I was honoured to be asked to curate an online exhibit on the subject of “Humane Education” for the National Museum of Animals & Society (NMAS) this year. After several months of research and preparation, the exhibit is now live. I enjoyed working on this project, thrilled to have had the opportunity to bring this story to a broader audience. So many people helped make this exhibit a reality, and I’m so grateful for all of their kindness, hard work, and generosity.

The NMAS is a wonderful museum dedicated to preserving the history of human-animal relationships, a history that has until very recently been woefully neglected by curators, historians, and academics. This is an important history, and the work that the NMAS is doing is so valuable. If you have any artefacts relating to the history of human-animal relationships or advocacy campaigns from previous eras that you would like to donate to the museum, they would love to hear from you!

Trains vs. Planes

I’m in Boston for the NEASA conference. The theme of the conference is “The Arts and the Public.” Should be good.

I opted not to fly to Boston this time. With each recent flight I have found myself growing more and more fed up with airline travel. I realized that even “short flights” become agonizingly long by the time one factors in security, customs, weather-related delays, over-crowded runways, etc.

For this trip I decide to take Amtrak down from Niagara Falls. It was a lovely trip, but the goddesses of travel wanted to make sure that I understood loud & clear that things like weather-related delays are not just limited to air travel. Ho hum. I was hours late getting into Boston because high winds knocked out power on the rail lines between New York and Boston.

Ok. Message received loud & clear. Travel can be a royal pain in the butt no matter what form of transportation one takes. I get it.

Having said that, I still think I’d opt for a train over a plane in the future if circumstances permit. It is just a more pleasant way to travel. On both the Niagara Falls – NYC and the NYC – Boston journeys the cars I rode in were nearly silent. It was quiet and peaceful, and I found the gentle sway of the cars relaxing. (so much so that I had a few naps along the way. I can’t recall the last time I was able to sleep on a plane!) The autumn scenery whipping along outside my window was beautiful to look at, and the dining car (yes, there was an actual dining car!) had vegan burgers and Sam Adams. I wouldn’t say it was the world’s best burger, but it sure the heck beats any airline food I’ve had recently (oh wait, that is because they generally never have anything I can eat!). Even the several hour delay in NYC wasn’t so bad — I mean, really, there are worse places to have to kill a few hours! I was thinking about how easy it was to just walk out of Penn Station and go for a stroll. Compare this to when you are stuck at an airport — airports are generally in the middle of nowhere and even if you decided to take a cab from the airport to another part of the city, there is the whole matter of having to go back through security, customs, etc. upon your return.

Plus, it is just a whole lot more fun to take pictures along the rail lines, and, really, doesn’t it always boil down to visual culture in the end anyhow?

“Do Not Refuse To Look At These Pictures”

The news about the abuse uncovered on an Ohio Dairy Farm by Mercy for Animals has hit the global media. The horrific film footage showing cows and calves being beaten, stabbed and kicked is stomach-turning.

I wish this were an isolated incident, but as anyone who has tried to learn more about where our food comes from knows all too well, abuse of animals in factory farm settings is not uncommon.

There is no doubt that this is difficult stuff to read about, look at, and discuss, but we need to know about it. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “oh, I can’t look at that stuff. I can’t hear about animal abuse or look too hard into where my food comes from.” These are often well-educated, intelligent people who I love and respect. And yet on this point I must respectfully disagree. If you care about your health, the health of your family, about animals or the fate of our planet nothing could be more important than knowing these sorts of “dirty little secrets” that the factory farming industry would rather we didn’t know.

I’m not saying we should all make a bowl of popcorn and sit down with the family to watch the Ohio dairy farm footage on the big screen TV. And yet, as Ed Burtynsky pointed out during an interview on CBC’s The Current yesterday, imagery is often what brings much needed attention to an issue. Burtynsky was not talking about the Ohio Dairy Farm case but, rather, about another horrific story, the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The point, however, is valid in both instances.

As someone who teaches about and conducts research on visual culture, this point is one that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. Right now I’m doing a lot of work on 19th century animal welfare activism and, in particular, the use of imagery in that movement. The great 19th century reformer Frances Power Cobbe began one of her illustrated anti-vivisection pamphlets with the words: “Do Not Refuse to Look at These Pictures.” She went on to discuss why it was so important for people to see with their own eyes the ways in which animals were treated behind closed doors in medical laboratories. Cobbe recognized that most people would not be granted access to these labs (just as we aren’t easily granted access to factory farm complexes) and, as such, she strongly believed in the power of visual culture to convey this difficult information to a broader public.

Things haven’t changed that much since Cobbe’s day and here I’d like to repeat her plea — “do not refuse to look at these pictures.” We can not keep ignoring what is going on.

Sabbatical Diaries — Day #10

Well, sabbatical hasn’t started off as I’d hoped. I got walloped by a nasty cold/flu thing this past week and spent 4 full days in bed. *blech* Much TLC, hot tea, and the occasional Chocolate MoMint biscuit have helped me beat it, so I’m back to work today.

Instead of spending any more time going down the rabbit hole of image permissions and copyright, I’m going to finish up the text portion of my manuscript and send it off. I’d like to finish it today. Then I can get back to dealing with the images. I love, love, love studying visual culture. I couldn’t imagine working in any other field. And yet, the frustration and stress around securing image copies and permissions, etc. is enough to make me lose my mind. I wish there were a straightforward checklist that one could use for this kind of activity, but it seems that every image I want to use (and those that my friends and colleagues seem to use too) is anything but “straightforward.” Ah well, it will be a learning experience I suppose.

In other news, I was delighted to see this article in the local paper today — I’d love it if St. Catharines became a hub for the GO train! Oh, and on the car-free front, I am not at all regretting my decision to “retire my ride.” I was a little worried about the hassle of cancelling my insurance — the last time I had to do that it was a royal pain in the neck and I got dinged several hundred dollars for “early cancellation.” It seems that this time I need not have worried. The good folks over at CAA have been super-duper helpful and, in fact, I received a refund cheque in the mail today. The only hitch is that I’m still waiting for my $300 from the “retire your ride” folks — it has been nearly 2 months since they picked up my car. I’m going to have to call and see what’s up.

Ok, time to get on with these final manuscript edits!

Square America

A few days ago Linda sent me the link to a site called Square America: Snapshots & Vernacular Photography. Considering I really need to be finalizing my course outlines this week, I’ve spent far too much time looking through the various galleries here. This is an amazing website! The focus is on amateur, everyday photography and the stories these photographs can tell. Many of the images have been purchased in flea markets or on e-bay. I think the rupture between the sense of personal intimacy and memory-making that prompted the making of the photograph in the first place and the lack of information we have when we view pictures on a website like this is simply fascinating. These kinds of images are so familiar to so many of us, yet as we look at them they sometimes raise more questions than answers. In my visual culture and history of photography classes I always try to emphasize the point that imagery can hold so many different meanings depending upon the context in which an image is viewed in. I also like to encourage students to think about personal uses of images, both in their own lives but also in history. These types of images have been so often neglected by art history, which is a shame. As the site’s owner says, “Not only do these photographs contain a wealth of primary source information on how life was lived they also constitute a shadow history of photography, one too often ignored by museums and art galleries.”


Image credit: this photograph is from the “At the Window” gallery
(Square America)