'Media Memes' exhibit takes collaborative approach to explore meaning of photos

Display first of many planned between university, Spencer Museum

It’s Celka Straughn’s job to bring the academic side of KU to the Spencer Museum of Art. Mike Williams was looking for a way to take the work of the journalism school to a wider campus audience. It was a perfect fit.

Straughn, the Andrew W. Mellon director of academic programs at the museum, and Williams, associate professor of journalism, collaborated to create the exhibit “Media Memes: Images, Technology and Making the News,” on display at the museum until Dec. 19. The exhibit examines how people view images, what meaning they take from them and how technology is used in shaping what becomes the news.

A meme, roughly defined, is a shared category or definition. Photos from museum’s permanent collection are placed into several recognizable categories such as sports or celebrity but, Williams said, others are put in less obvious groupings and it is up to the viewer to interpret what the photo says.

One photo shows a woman running in a park. Williams said that when asked, viewers have attached ideas such as freedom, joy and frolicking to the photo. An occasional viewer will say something like escape. The photo is actually a shot of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis running from paparazzi.

“I’ve heard people say it makes them think twice about what a photograph means when they learn that,” Williams said.

The exhibit also explores photography’s past, with a display of several antique cameras — many on loan from Wolfe’s Cameras of Topeka — and a collection of photo editors’ tools. Several of the pieces, such as a light table, ratio wheel and even film, are rarely used anymore. Williams, a former photo editor, said many students who view the exhibit may have shot film but have never been exposed to many of the editing tools.

The future of photography and how it relates to media is explored as well. As viewers enter the exhibit space, they can use one of several iMacs or iPads to view photos from a number of different publications and experience their presentation in new media while viewing others from circa 1960s publications. The technology was provided by the Tech Shop in the Kansas Union. Users can also manipulate photos and use some of the digital tools of today’s photo editors. Viewers can also assign their own memes, write headlines, captions and brief news stories for photos as well on the museum’s website.

On another wall, a giant screen shows photos as they stream through the Associated Press photo wire in real time. The images contain the date and same caption information that editors see. The Associated Press provides the feed to the museum.

“These are the kinds of images you might see in everyday life,” Straughn said of the exhibit. “And the ones on the AP feed are more than likely the images you are seeing in everyday life.”

Media Memes, curated by Williams and Straughn with assistance by Luke Jordan, lecturer in the departments of design and visual art, is one of an ongoing series of collaborative displays at the Spencer Museum of Art. Straughn’s position is part of a $1 million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation matching award. The award is intended to enhance the museum’s scholarly and research standing, while expanding the reciprocal relationship between faculty, students and the museum.

The museum’s Raymond White Teaching Gallery was recently home to “African Healing Journeys,” an exhibit organized by John Janzen, professor of anthropology. The display shared works of African art and was part of an academic conference organized by the Kansas African Studies Center in September. Straughn said there are plans to host future exhibits in collaboration with faculty from political science and perhaps economics, to show further how art can be used as an agent for teaching, learning and research, even in disciplines in which it might not normally be associated.

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