2013 PFIG Recipient Zaina Natour
School of Architecture
Urban & Environmental Planning Major
2014 Graduation Year
Internship: Elsewhere Museum
Notes on the first week
I am interning for Elsewhere Museum in Greensboro, NC, a living museum set inside a former thrift store. I will be serving as the productions intern for the summer season. As the productions intern, I assist with residency projects, projects led by staff, projects that involve communities, and events and special programs.
Before I begin, a more thorough explanation of the Elsewhere Museum is in order. There was once a couple who owned a furniture store. Over the years, the furniture store evolved into an army surplus store and then the husband unexpectedly dies and the wife, Sylvia Gray, takes over. She begins collecting fabric and the army surplus store becomes a fabric shop. Starting in 1929, Sylvia Gray begins to go to the Salvation Army, Goodwill, and other thrift stores twice a day until she died in 1997. For 58 years, she amasses this incredible collection of everything you can think of - toys, phones, buttons, jewelry, clothing, cups and silverware, etc. By the end of her life, she had filled up two buildings in downtown Greensboro full of this random collection of things. In the early 2000s, George Scheer, Sylvia's grandson, goes to this building that he's only ever heard about in crazy stories his father told him as a child. On his first visit, he leaves with a box of things from the warehouse and brings it back to his college apartment. Every time people visit him, they rifle through the box and play dress-up or just fiddle with the items or combine them to create something new. I think at this point, it occurred to George that he had two entire warehouses just like this box. After graduating college, he moves back to Greensboro and begins tidying up the place. In 2003, George declares nothing for sale and Elsewhere becomes a non-profit with the subtitle "a living museum set inside a former thrift store." For the last 10 years, Elsewhere has turned into an artist residency program where artists are invited to come create works of art with only the items they can find in Sylvia's collection. Today, Elsewhere Museum is a world full of fun, interactive exhibits and a lot of things to touch, explore, and discover. Some of the art projects are disassembled but some are loved so much that no one dares touch them. For example, there are a set of swings in the storefront that people are invited to use and swing out over onto the sidewalk (my absolute favorite part of the museum). Super Piano Bouncy Ball is another all-time favorite that features a great deal of instruments that span the height of a wall where museum-goers are asked to interact with the piece by throwing bouncy balls at it to create music. There's also a Peoples' Post Office to send messages that are delivered to no one but read by everyone, a Confessatorium to profess your darkest secrets, and a sky lounge for when you need to escape the chaos that is Elsewhere (amongst many, many other projects).
My first week on the "job" was a lot of meeting new people, asking people to remind me of their name, but also doing actual museum things. I was in charge of making tags for each project that happened thus far in the year 2013 in order to prepare for First Fridays. The way the artist residency works is every year, 50 artists come to Elsewhere and have a few days to explore Sylvia's collection and propose a project, and can then use the rest of their residency to create it. This past week, two artists - Joey Orr and Gregory Bloom - arrived and they gave talks on what they do and who they are (the public is welcome to sit in on these talks). Joey Orr is all about staging public intervention and archival works and Gregory Bloom is interested in exploring alternative economic systems such as mutual credit and local currencies.
Every First Friday, all staff members are given the option to dress up using the clothing and accessories room in the museum in accordance with the theme of the night (School's Out). First Fridays was centered around our "I Don't Do Boxes" launch party which was about giving queers (Elsewhere is keen on promoting a positive use of this term) an opportunity to share their stories about growing up in the South and identifying as something other than straight. A lot of the teens who wrote came to the opening and read their stories aloud to the crowds passing through, smashed piñatas that had derogatory terms about the LGBTQ community on them, jammed out to a live band, and the night closed with a dance party. It was an absolute blast!
This museum goes against the traditional definition of what a museum is and I think that's why I am in love with it. Elsewhere is essentially all about community engagement to foster dialogue and creativity, which is what I hope to do for the rest of my life. Just from the first week, I can tell that the next two months are going to be an absolute delight considering the unpredictable nature of the museum and the insane amount of fun things that happen here on a daily basis. Can't wait to see what's in store!
Over and out!
Life at Elsewhere progresses! Since I last wrote, I have been designated as a tour guide for the museum, had an interesting bonding trip with the executive director, and learned how to make delicious guacamole. 10 or so artists have come and gone which means 10 new projects were created - so much has changed! I had the pleasure of working with the John Q Collective based in Atlanta, GA on a conceptual piece that uses personal inscriptions in books to create a string of text with events and years that people can to relate to. For example, blood 2008 danced in the hall 1929, etc. I was tasked with prepping the walls for the lettering and doing some of the application of the vinyl text - great experience and skills acquired!
Quite recently, I have been assigned to work on a very cool project called the StoryBank - a platform for storytelling created by the curators of the museum two years ago. The purpose of the StoryBank is to bring to light issues that are happening in the community and provide digital archiving support for community groups and local social justice campaigns. My job is to bring it into the community by attending community roundtables and talk up collecting stories for the StoryBank. Greensboro recently imposed a teen curfew because of a riot that happened downtown involving (allegedly) 400 people, so we are currently targeting youth and collecting stories on the power of youth voice and agency. I've also been creating flyers for events that are happening at Elsewhere and assisting artists with their artist projects Lastly, I've been doing a lot of research on projects that have happened in the past 10 years and are creating project tags for them so they're easier to identify when the public is touring the museum. It's a shame that I can't stay here longer as things are picking up and there's been a lot of changes just within the last couple months, but the days are getting longer and hotter - Greensboro in the summer is really something! But with only a few weeks left, I'm spending as much time as I can here at Elsewhere.
Towards the end, the real faults of the organization began to reveal themselves and I realized that a lot of what the space purported to be was, in fact, not the truth at all. For example, there's a big emphasis on community when people talk about the space, but the storefront is very unwelcoming and the people at the front desk are usually not paying attention when you walk in. As a person walks through the space, the staff and interns of the museum do not acknowledge them which is very strange. It's mainly because the staff and interns are considered a part of the living museum that are always changing and moving and need to get things done, but I don't think a "hello" is too much to ask. I made it a personal task of mine to engage visitors and let them know that I was there if they needed any help. The staff was very cult-like and I reached out to fellow intern and artist residents and asked them how they felt about it and agreed that they felt alienated.
I think the main problem of the organization stems from the fact that it's such a hip place in such a lame city so they're allowed to get away with being subpar. The concept behind Elsewhere is a fantastic one, but in practice, the museum is unorganized and poorly run, and it's failing to collaborate with its only assets - resident artists. I was shocked by the fact that artists felt excluded - these are the people who make your imagination a reality and should be welcomed with open arms. Artists complained that they weren't given enough attention or resources. Many artists considered their residency a disappointment because, for various reasons, they weren't able to put forth a great piece of work because they didn't have the necessary resources or were promised things that weren't available. However, I think I learned a lot from my experience here:
- One good person can make a difference - my immediate boss and curator, Jennie, was accurately able to assess my skills and apply them effectively to the job. I never felt underutilized or under appreciated working for her.
- Being organized is one of the best assets you can have - the executive director of the space was a frazzled mess and missed meetings regularly and in general, did not have his life together. People represent an organization just as much as the actual product represents an organization!
- Healthy conflict and good relationships between people who are running the organization are crucial. In my exit interview, I mentioned a few things I thought the museum should think about and worded them very neutrally with no negativity or tone. After giving what I thought was constructive advice, the curator interviewing me immediately thought I was targeting her and told me so. I instantly felt uncomfortable and ended the interview shortly after. Healthy conflict is necessary for growth in any organization.
- One must be encouraging and inspiring to make people feel like they're all working towards something great. There was no community for interns or people who weren't immediate staff. It was up to us to figure things out and somehow not mess up while doing so. In the end we all bonded about how terrible the place was - that should definitely not happen.
- People are your most important asset. I could single handedly convince anyone who asked me about this establishment to not go because of my negative experience. People underestimate how much information is exchanged by word of mouth and should strive to make visitors feel like they're the #1 priority.
- It's difficult to promote something you don't genuinely enjoy. I never want to work at a job where I don't believe in the mission. At the end of the internship, I felt bad giving people the spiel about the museum because I felt like I was misleading them.
I think overall, the lessons listed above were definitely worth the experience. People are often times telling you how you should do things, rather than how you should not do things. I think this has been a radical summer in that it changed my way of thinking about business and people.I graciously thank the Parents Committee for awarding me the funds to take this opportunity and will mention the grant to people every chance I get.