Smithsonian staff and volunteers work countless hours in the halls of our museums and research centers, in the field, at the Zoo, in our gardens and facilities. We are privileged to spend time with some of the nation’s most cherished treasures as we go about our duties. Sometimes, these unique experiences find a special place in our own personal stories. Amy Kehs introduces Matthew Lasnoski and a few of his favorite things.
Every picture tells a story, as does every object in every exhibition and every visitor who interacts with them. Meet Matthew Lasnoski and find out how he tries to tie all these stories together.
Matthew Lasnoski wears many hats at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and all of those hats sport a shiny feather of education. Matthew joined the Smithsonian in 2012 with a master’s degree in art history from the University of Cambridge. He worked first at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum before joining the staff at the Freer|Sackler in 2014 where he is currently education in youth and family programs Matthew was recently awarded the Director’s Excellence Award in personal achievement for his contributions and hard work on the Illuminasia Festival, the 24-hour celebration of the museum’s grand reopening in October 2017. Matthew is definitely someone who is very passionate about his work. He loves observing and researching visitors, experience and then applying that knowledge to enhance how a visitor might “take in” a museum when they walk through its doors.
Matthew’s first pick for his “favorite things” list is the Electronic Superhighway at the SAAM, his first Smithsonian home. This large modern art piece by Nam June Paik features a gigantic map of the United States made up of neon-lit borders and a 51-channel video installation depicting images for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Each channel features Paik’s video interpretation of each state nestled between the neon state borders on the map. Some of the things Paik chose to represent a state are personal to him and some images are the icons or stereotypes that we think of when we think of those states. For example, Idaho is represented by a video of potatoes. Kansas is an ongoing loop of the classic Wizard of Oz. Matthew’s most memorable experience with the Electronic Superhighway was during a tour he gave for teachers from all across the United States. He has fond memories of how the piece resonated with the group and fostered an interesting discussion.
”The teachers definitely reacted to the stereotypes that were used to represent their states. Sometimes they found the choices humorous and sometimes they may have felt a bit annoyed that their entire state was boiled down to one stereotypical image,” Matthew observes. The visit with the teachers and the candid discussion they had about the different cultures that co-exist in our country has become one of Matthew’s great Smithsonian memories.
His second favorite thing at the Smithsonian is the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room in the Encountering the Buddha exhibit at the Sackler Gallery. Featuring more than 200 objects, the room uses sculptures, lighting, tapestries and sound to create the illusion that you are actually in a shrine room in the Himalayas. Matthew was kind enough to give me a tour of the space during our interview.
“It is very difficult to walk into this room and not have some type of reaction or experience,” says Matthew about why he is so intrigued by this exhibit. “Some visitors may find it calming but it may also make some visitors feel very uncomfortable.” He and his co-workers have been conducting audience research in this exhibit and he has really been inspired by the in-depth audience feedback that they have been collecting. The feedback provides museum staff with valuable input on how visitors interpret the information presented in the exhibit that can be used by the museum in future planning. Encountering the Buddha is on display in the Sackler Gallery until November 29, 2020.
The visitor experience is something that fascinates Matthew, so I wasn’t at all surprised that he picked the Greensboro Lunch Counter interactive at the National Museum of African American History and Culture for his third Smithsonian favorite. The award-winning interactive exhibition features a modern version of the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, Miss., that played a pivotal role in the sit-ins that helped spark 1960s Civil Rights movement (the original lunch counter is on display across the street at the National Museum of American History). Visitors can sit at the lunch counter and, looking down at the glowing video interactive that forms the “counter,” can choose from several events that took place as part of civil rights movement and learn some of lesser known aspects of this part of our history. The exhibition dives deeply into what civil rights activists had to endure, the risks they took, and the sacrifices they made to help pave the way for equal rights. The exhibition asks visitors to think about themselves in the context of this history. Matthew loves that this exhibit evokes empathy in visitors and really puts the visitors in the shoes of the activists.
“I think most people would like to think that they would have been able to sit at that counter, but the interactive points out the hardships of those peaceful demonstrations and what those brave citizens had to endure while they sat there quietly at the lunch counter in Greensboro,” Matthew says. “The interactive really puts you in their shoes and shows what they had to sacrifice. It makes the visitor ask, ‘Could I have been that brave?’”
All of Matthew’s favorite things have amazing stories attached to them and each has made a lasting impression on Matthew Lasnoski, both personally and professionally. His boundless curiosity means he never misses an opportunity to listen and learn and then apply that knowledge to his job. It is no surprise that his favorite objects share a common thread—observing and sharing the visitor experience.
Posted: 18 June 2018