This month the Portland Art Museum unveiled an ambitious new project aimed toward community outreach: Object Stories, which comes to us after a year of intense workshopping and a fatty $100,000 grant from the MetLife Foundation (the museum was one of only two organizations to receive such a large sum from the foundation). A collaboration with the Northwest Film Center, Miracle Theatre Group, and Write Around Portland, Object Stories addresses the subtle but vital power of an object to compel a narrative and provides an interactive platform meant to transform the public's perception of "the archive" and their relationship to it.
The first thing one notices is the objects on display, everything from a purse to gnarly cloth dolls to a murky painting of a perspectival road; these are displayed with a spotlight, behind glass, in talismanic fashion. Next, the eyes wander to the two touch-screen computers in the middle of the room, offering photographs of the objects, audio, and a search engine. One can gather cursory visual impressions about the items in the installation, then walk over to a computer, search for the item, and listen to audio about it, hearing an entirely different perspective on the object. The audio is generated onsite in an interactive soundproof booth, a synthesis of a photo booth and a recording studio, where anyone can reserve a session (sign up online at objectstories.pam.org), bring in a personal item, and talk about it via a series of prompts, while the booth snaps several photographs and records audio. Afterward the audio is edited down to about two minutes and added to the archives. A collection of inviting, petite portraits of Object Stories participants also lines the walls of PAM's basement, where the project is accessed.
The show's depth is in its range of experience. Since some of the stories and items are private individuals' and some are part of the museum's collection, the project brings the museum into your own home (the archives are available online) and vice versa, forcing reflection on the practice of curation and the subjective allocation of emotional and historical value. In what can easily be the stodgy, quiet sphere of a museum, Object Stories brings an intimate, honest, and thoughtful voice.