Pressed Flowers: Collections & Their Keepers - Bean Gilsdorf Living History Museum

Pressed Flowers: Collections & Their Keepers – Bean Gilsdorf Living History Museum

Pressed Flowers, Collections and Their Keepers by Amanda Roscoe Mayo

Bean Gilsdorf Living History Museum

As discussed in the previous Pressed Flowers column with Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher of SFMOMA, collections have personalities and identities. They could be those of the institution, or those of the individual assembling the collection. In the case of the Bean Gilsdorf Living History Museum the collection, collector, and its history inhabit the same singular personality.

The BGLHM is the life, work, and home of contemporary artist Bean Gilsdorf; a private collection made viscerally public and performative. Their website states: “The Bean Gilsdorf Living History Museum in San Francisco, California is the world’s smallest living history museum and a site where visitors may sense the immediacy of the past. Here we interpret the life of Bean Gilsdorf and the origins of her work as an artist on the West Coast of America. In all ways and in all details, the museum provides an authoritative impression of the lived experience of Bean Gilsdorf.”

Flier Detail

The formal and professional nature of the museum is found in all aspects of the BGLHM, from legal signage to a roped off bedroom (period room perhaps), to a closet gift shop, and even the nametag that Gilsdorf herself wears as an interpreter. There is a detailed map outlining the exhibition of artworks in the apartment, and an informational pamphlet explaining the mission of the museum.

What is the significance of presenting one’s own collection through performance while adhering to the requirements of a living history museum? There are two major aspects to this collection; one is the artwork in the private collection of Gilsdorf, and the other is the home she occupies along with all of her possessions. By inviting guests into her home and opening quite literally everything to display, Gilsdorf is enacting the spectacle.

The only true boundary in the museum is the red velvet rope enveloping the bed, otherwise a visitor may investigate the identity of Gilsdorf to their heart’s content by observing her objects, reading her books, looking at her work and the work of others, and drinking her tea. By offering her own past and present, Gilsdorf is eliminating invisible boundaries to how we think about museums and collections.

Linear perspective is not always the best record of history as the past may reenter the present through events, or even new knowledge. One person’s experience of living in this very moment is different from another. To become conscious of how one is enacting their own history and the objects they have inherited is no small feat.

The West Wing

Amanda Roscoe Mayo: How did you come to decide to make a Living History museum, and one that details the immediate history of your own living space?

Bean Gilsdorf: Living history is the practice of re-presenting the trappings, actions, and attitudes from former times—traditional living history museums include sites like Colonial Williamsburg and Plimoth Plantation—but what if that past time was a month ago, or a week, or even ten minutes ago?I opened the BGLHM in late June 2013 as a way of getting at a few notions at once: first, with the rapidity of information flow, our sense of time has sped up and so the whole idea of “looking at history” isn’t something that has to be done at 100 years’ distance. Also, my previous projects have considered history through images, and I wanted to examine history from a very personal perspective. The BGLHM poses more questions than it answers: What is history? Who gets to decide? What is a museum? What information is presented?

AM: Living History is always performative, as it includes costume and character building to represent that particular time period with as much accuracy as possible. How does performance come into play when you take on the role of yourself as a guide?

BG: Living history “guides” are called interpreters—they provide an informed view of the past. Who better to interpret the life of the San Francisco artist Bean Gilsdorf than me? I’m uniquely qualified.

AM: Tell us about the exhibition currently on view. How often do they change and do you have plans for the next one?

BG: The exhibition on view now is a selection from the permanent collection. The exhibitions change 2-3 times per year, and the next show considers official documents that are produced by artists or that pertain to art practices; the one after that will be a compilation of videos produced in domestic spaces.

AM: There are two major facets to the BGLHM–that of you and your living space, and that which is a rotating exhibition of artworks–both of which function as personal collections. Why did you choose to mount art exhibitions as part of the museum?

BG: From trades with other artists and from my personal practice, I own a lot of art. A lot of this art is on the walls of my apartment, a.k.a. the Museum. As with everything else in the Museum, the program of rotating exhibitions is a presentation at the same time as it is an enactment of my own conditions.

The East Wing

AM: You yourself are a very didactic artist who is interested in moments in history that are often remembered with ease. Sometimes these are important and sometimes they are just memorable. Do you consider the undertaking and upkeep of the BGLHM an extension of your practice as an artist? How do the items in your collection inform the museum?

BG: I wouldn’t characterize my work as didactic per se, because it’s not intended for instruction. I’m just interested in the way that historical images make up a public record of events, and how the image comes to shape a future understanding of the event. For example, more people see images of Washington crossing the Delaware than will ever read first-person accounts or even scholarly interpretations of that act. The BGLHM is my practice, and so everything that I produce from here forward is an extension of it. Since the Museum is about living history, and I am, in the strictest sense, living a history all day every day, then the Museum goes with me wherever I go.

AM: Is there an underlying commentary on art museums/collections here as well? I wonder this only because the museum is to reflect your lived experience, and since you are an artist, writer, and organizer of exhibitions yourself, I imagine you frequent these spaces often. The language on your website is written in true deliberate museum fashion.

BG: The explanatory text on the BGLHM website is written in a way to signal its museum-ness. In general, I’m keen to explore ideas of institutional access and presentation, essentially dealing with the question: Who decides? I’m less interested in making a meta-comment about museums and more interested in making my own institution(s). When you make your own systems, you don’t have to rely on external acceptance or endorsement.

AM: In that vein I have to ask about the “printable lesson plans for K-12 teachers that conform to the California Visual Arts Curriculum Framework Learning Standards.” Why is education important to BGLHM and what is included on the lesson plan?

BG: The lesson plans are a way for younger visitors to understand the mission and aims of the Museum. For example, the objective of the plan for grades 5-6 is to get students to describe how museums, including living history museums, contribute to the conservation of art. The lesson objectives for grades 9-12 ask students to identify and describe trends in the visual arts and discuss how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence are reflected in works of art.

AM: What are the long term plans for BGLHM?

BG: In no particular order, we plan to hang the next exhibition, finish ordering supplies for the Museum Shop, and apply for funding so that we can start partnering with other institutions to put on events such as lectures and screenings.

BGLHM is open by appointment only on Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday during the hours of 10am to 3pm. Visit their website for more information or to make an appointment,

Bean Gilsdorf is an artist and writer. Her recent art projects explore systems of history that appear as both individual accounts and as unified public narratives. Gilsdorf received her MFA from the California College of the Arts in 2011, and her work has been included in exhibitions in the United States, Poland, England, Italy, China, and South Africa. Gilsdorf is the Managing Editor of Daily Serving, an international publication for the contemporary fine arts. Currently she lives in San Francisco, where she operates the Bean Gilsdorf Living History Museum.


Amanda Roscoe Mayo  is a curator based in San Francisco; she received her MA in Curatorial Practice from CCA and currently curates for Needles & Pens in the Mission. Pressed Flowers: Collections and Their Keepers is a series for mosshouse in which Mayo visits Bay Area collections and interviews the collectors or those who manage the collections in depth.